Lee was born in Denver, Colorado to Korean parents. He and his family would later move to Lincoln, Arkansas, where he attended Lincoln High school. He then went to Yale to study biology with a major in ecology. He would later drop his plans for medical school to pursue filmmaking, leading him to study film at the University of Utah, earning his Masters of Fine Arts in 2004.
Lee made his directorial debut with Munyurangabo(2007). The movie was filmed entirely in Rwanda with local actors, and is the first narrative feature film in the Kinyarwanda language. It premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for Un Certain Regard and the Caméra d'Or. The film also received the Grand Jury Prize at the AFI Fest, and Best First Film at the Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival.
His next two films, Lucky Life (2010) and Abigail Harm (2012) would also earn more critical praise, with Lucky Life receiving a nomination for Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, and Abigail Harm earning Lee an award for Best Director - Narrative Feature and Best Narrative Feature at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Inspired by his upbringing, he would write and direct Minari(2020), a film that follows a family of South Korean immigrants who try to start a new life in rural Arkansas during the 1980s. The film premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award. At the 93rd Academy Awards, the film received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. In addition, Steven Yeun, who stars in the film, was nominated for Best Actor and composer Emile Mosseri for Best Original Score.
In 2007, Lee partnered with Rwandan filmmakers to help create Almond Tree Rwanda, a film production company and academy. Lee also mentors young and aspiring filmmakers through Almond Tree Rwanda.
Lee lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, Valerie Chung. ~Sean Olegario
Abigail Harm (2012)
Lucky Life (2010)