Heightened prestige of Korean film creates opportunities for Korean Americans, say actors and directors

Posted on : 2023-10-11 17:19 KST Modified on : 2023-10-11 17:19 KST
A conversation among four Korean American actors and directors at the Busan International Film Festival
(Left to right) John Cho, Justin Chon, Steven Yeun, and Lee Isaac Chung pose for a photo after a press conference for the Busan International Film Festival special program in focus, “Korean Diasporic Cinema.”
(Left to right) John Cho, Justin Chon, Steven Yeun, and Lee Isaac Chung pose for a photo after a press conference for the Busan International Film Festival special program in focus, “Korean Diasporic Cinema.”

It wasn’t easy to bring actors John Cho and Steven Yeun and directors Justin Chon and Lee Isaac Chung — who are all in the middle of dynamic cinematic careers in the US — together on a single stage. In fact, the four Korean Americans had to fight to make it happen, tweaking their schedules until the last minute. They met with fans while taking part in a press conference for a special program titled “Korean Diasporic Cinema,” at the 28th Busan International Film Festival, on Friday.

Chon remarked that it was “really great” to get the four Korean Americans to finally get together during the press conference held at the KNN Theater in the Haeundae District of Busan. As Korean Americans in the largely white US entertainment industry, the four actors and directors have battled against prejudice while building their careers and have recently achieved remarkable success.

Chung directed “Minari,” the 2021 film that made Youn Yuh-jung an Oscar winner.

Yeun recapitulated the second-generation Korean American experience as the star of “Beef,” a Netflix series that has won plaudits around the world.

Cho became the first Asian actor to play the leading role in a mainstream Hollywood thriller in the 2018 blockbuster film “Searching.”

And Chon has deftly shepherded Korean immigrant stories into Hollywood through acting and directing roles in several TV series and films including “Pachinko,” a major hit for Apple TV+.

Calling it a “major shift in popular culture,” Yeun said that he was happy to see entertainment made by Korean Americans playing so well in recent years. The increased attention to these stories allowed Koreans in Korea and around the world to come together while recognizing and respecting their differences. Yeun called the notion a “comfort” for members of the diaspora like himself.

Chung recalled the lack of role models in Hollywood growing up, saying that there were few people from his parents’ generation that were doing movies — a fact that led to even more pushback from families when younger generations of Korean Americans were trying to get into the industry.

“I think a lot of people relate to stories about second-generation immigrants — people who have gone through similar childhoods as us and found their own way to a career — because you’ve got an increasing number of [immigrants], and not just Koreans, who feel like their lives are pretty rootless,” Chung said.

Immigrant stories help people realize they’re not the only ones who feel trapped on their own separate islands, shared Chon, saying that friends from India and Armenia had told him they sympathized with some of the subject matter in Korean stories. Referencing Yeun’s recent hit series “Beef,” Chon said what made the show so remarkable was how it uses an immigrant’s story to bring out these universal themes that modern people can relate to.

Last year, Cho wrote a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel called “Troublemaker” that won the category of Children’s Honor in the Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature. Set during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the novel is about an immigrant boy’s struggle with his identity and racial discrimination.

When Cho was younger, his parents showed him an article from a Korean American newspaper about some Korean American getting a perfect score on the SAT, the actor shared said during Actors’ House, a BIFF event held on Thursday. “Then they demanded to know why I couldn’t pull off the same thing.”

“Most second-generation Koreans grew up hearing that kind of thing and got stuck thinking they’re never perfect and always getting something wrong. I wanted to say, ‘Let’s be honest, we’re not perfect,’ and that’s what went into the book,” he went on, applauding the efforts of Korean Americans to present an “outstanding immigrant narrative not only in film and television but also in literature,” in recent years.

“Film is rapidly escaping from Hollywood’s stranglehold and becoming more multifaceted. The elevated status of Korean cinema is a good example of that,” Cho said. “Korean Americans in the film industry are currently benefiting from the international spotlight on Korean movies and the growing prestige of Korean media.”

“As an artist, I’d like to play a positive role at a time of cultural transformation,” he added.

By Kim Eun-hyeong, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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