Warning: This story contains spoilers for Minari.
A barn burns but a marriage is resurrected in the ashes by the end of the Academy Award-nominated film, which is loosely based on Chung's upbringing in rural Arkansas during the 1980s. When matriarch Soonja (Oscar winner Yuh-Jung Youn) accidentally sets the barn blaze — it contains the produce of her entrepreneurial son-in-law Jacob (Steven Yeun) — he runs into the fire to save his bounty with wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) close behind.
The accident mirrors a moment from writer-director Chung's own childhood in the Ozarks. His grandmother, also a foul-mouthed but loving force with a penchant for wrestling matches on TV, once unwittingly started a fire on the family's pear farm.
In the film, Jacob eventually forsakes his crop to ensure Monica gets out safe. Outside, a disoriented Soonja wanders away. Her grandson David (breakout star Alan Kim) chases after her and implores her to return home. The next morning, the family is asleep on the floor, defeated from the fatigue from the night before, as Soonja quietly watches them from her chair. Some time after, Jacob, Monica, and a water diviner locate the perfect spot for a well. Jacob and David then head to the creek, where Soonja helped harvest minari (water celery), which has sprouted in abundance. Jacob remarks that Soonja chose a good spot to plant the resilient vegetable.
Josh Ethan Johnson/A24 Steven Yeun, Alan Kim, Yuh-jung Youn, Han Ye-ri, and Noel Cho in 'Minari'
But an alternate ending, published in A24's Minari Screenplay Book (available Thursday), reveals a less open-ended and much more bleak conclusion that features the death of Soonja. It flashes forward seven years, when David and sister Anne (Noel Cho) are teenagers. As the family's lives improved, Soonja's declined, a voiceover from David reveals. She dies in a nursing home, not long after her grandchildren visit her. Before the film fades to black, viewers are taken back to the clearing in the woods, where the minari continues to grow in abundance on a stream of water.
"I always felt the film needed to end at the minari patch, but I had trouble finding the right way to get there," says Chung, who spent roughly six months working on the screenplay. "My producer, Christina Oh, asked me to think about why I wanted to make this film. I thought about it, but it was like squeezing water from a rock. I had no idea why I wanted to make the film. I just knew that I wanted to." The why was resolved as a homage to parents and grandparents, and while the ending received positive feedback, Chung wasn't entirely convinced it was the right resolution.
Casting difficulties — coupled with concerns that audiences would have already fallen in love with a younger Kim and Cho — sent Chung back to the drawing board. "It dawned on me that the reason I hadn't come up with an ending I liked was because I was still trying to make this a memoir when it should be fiction," he tells EW. "To close the film out by saying that this was my family would limit the way the audience sees them."
A24 Yuh-jung Youn in 'Minari'
Chung explains, "When I started writing, I hit an immediate brick wall in the first few weeks trying to adhere to my memories, and it wasn't until I renamed the characters and thought of them as fictional that the writing flowed again." While separating reality from fiction presented its own set of challenges, the filmmaker ultimately "let the family drift off onto their own fate and future, apart from mine, and it was wonderfully cathartic."
"When I stopped thinking of the film as autobiography, it let me think of the film as a fable — and I like fables that are hopeful," Chung says. He believes he felt his late grandmother's spirit while making Minari. "I think watching Youn Yuh-jung would make her laugh," he says. "Maybe it would rank somewhere up there with wrestling."