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APA gets an exclusive glimpse of the Korean film industry from its future filmmakers from Mokwon University.
"21 Koreans and only one of me? In the illustrious words of Marty McFly from Back to the Future, 'this is heavy'..."
10:12 in the am, Februrary 6, 2004 - Picture it: Me, a rookie APA correspondent, clutching papers with perspiring hands and mentally practicing my interview questions in Korean when Gohar Grigorian from the International Visitors Bureau of UCLA International Institute informs me via cell phone that the visitors from Mokwon University have arrived thirty minutes early (WARNING: Ignorant stereotype just around the corner).
"But aren't Koreans notorious for their truancy?" I questioned while packing my belongings. I could not believe it. I was about to embark upon my very first assignment as a reporter. (In that respect, I felt like Josie Geller in Never Been Kissed except my nickname was not Josie Grossie). With broken Korean in mind and borrowed technical equipment in hand, I sprinted from Kinsey to Melnitz Hall. People stared at me as I ran past them, but I was not concerned about their thoughts on the weird Asian American girl running clear across campus. Instead, I was worried about how our Korean guests would receive me.
I had to run a few laps around Melnitz before discovering the visitors from Mokwon University on an old sitcom set. I stumbled upon them while they were conversing about who-knows-what. I could not really hear what they were saying; everything was such a blur. Their fluent Korean language skills did not resemble my broken Korean. I stopped dead in my tracks before a herd of attractive Koreans all turned to look at me. No words came out of my dry mouth. My Korean is wretched enough when I am placid, but when I am nervous it is a completely different story. I was in the middle of breathing heavily when I finally mustered sufficient courage to introduce myself to the entire group. My parents both grew up in the countryside, so I most likely spoke with a heavy countryside accent. (Upon hearing me talk, I imagine some of them were taken aback).
I was initially intended to be a two-hour gig with film majors transformed into an eight-hour extravaganza with one film major and other Mokwon University students, that began at UCLA, where we toured the campus and ate lunch, and unexpectedly ended at the J. Paul Getty Museum. (By then I was so enervated I spent an hour and a half sitting on a couch convincing everyone I was all right and would not require a stretcher).
The prospect of embarrassing myself definitely daunted me. I was suffering from stress overload. "How can I make them feel comfortable? I was running really hard...does my coiffure resemble Simba's mane?" I was too busy worrying and asking myself ludicrous questions. Little did I know that I was about to encounter one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.
Although trying to communicate with the students and professors and keeping up with their fast-paced walking were arduous tasks (I've visited Korea and public transportation seems to hasten your pace), their visit turned out to be extremely educational. I discovered that overdoing gesticulations is impossible. I realized for the umpteenth time the atrocity of my Korean language skills. And most importantly, I got the opportunity to intimately interview four students while devouring lunch and listening to their thoughts on the booming Korean film industry, which is arguably the hottest place for cinematic entertainment next to Hollywood now days.
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Anna (APA): Where in Korea are you from?
Students: Most of us are from Daejon and Seoul. Mokwon is near these two cities.
Anna (APA): Why does film interest you? Does your family support your aspirations?
Students: Mokwon University just created its film department in 2003, and the university itself is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. Therefore, the university is relatively young and filmmaking at Mokwon is still in its preliminary stage. Some of us are interested in production. Some of us want to become church missionaries who in turn use film as an educational tool. Some of us want to pursue careers in broadcasting. Very few of our parents disapprove of our desires to become filmmakers. They know that breaking into the Korean film industry is unbelievably difficult. Thus, they can't help but think that it may be impractical and fraught with hardship. Overall, our parents are supportive.
Anna (APA): What kind of projects do you see yourself working on in the future? What influences your work (i.e. film, music, paintings)?
Students: Personally, I want to make films that expose the wide emotional spectrum of human beings. For instance, Memento truly captures the humanity and emotional trauma of one man who desperately yearns to discover his past and his present. The movie touches viewers. A lot of us turn to music and photographs for inspiration.
Anna (APA): What is it like for young filmmakers in Korea? What do audiences respond to the most?
Students: In Korea, film patrons are scarce. Gaining recognition and acknowledgement for filmmaking is incredibly hard. Independent filmmakers struggle, too. Nowadays, audiences are more interested in sensationalistic action movies than in beautiful artsy films that try to speak to the viewer's heart. Although those artsy films are critically acclaimed and receive awards, they are not profitable at the box office. The vast majority of viewers are more concerned about visuals and special effects than about profound content. On a global scale, audiences continually tend to veer more and more toward aesthetics.
Anna (APA): Besides recent hits like Shiri, JSA, and Chingu, what other Korean films do you think are underrated and deserve more attention?
Students: Jee Gu Reul Jee Kyuh Ra (Save the Green Planet) is an excellent movie that on the surface seems trivial yet unfolds to be a brilliant satirical feature full of cautionary tales. The film is arguably strange, but it entails important messages about life and brotherhood. In Jung Sah Jung Bohl Gud Uhb Da (Just Do It) is another awesome film of scathing social commentary.
Anna (APA): Today, are viewers in Korea less attracted to imported films than before?
Students: Yes. Korea, India, and France are three of very few countries whose inhabitants watch more domestic movies than foreign movies. At least 40% of the films shown in movie theatres are required to be domestic films. South Korea favored American films until 1998. But the 1998 release of blockbuster Silmido changed the Korean film industry by catalyzing more support for domestic films than imported ones. In Korea, Silmido collectively earned more money than The Lord of the Rings. The quality of Korean films have continued to improve since then.
Anna (APA): What is the purpose of your visit to UCLA?
Students: Being so close to Hollywood, UCLA and film inherently go together. UCLA is a valuable source of knowledge; its very ambiance is a source of encouragement. There are reasons why UCLA is such a popular university and landmark, and we hope to transfuse the insightful information we learn today into great filmmaking and unprecedented innovation.
Anna (APA): What do you predict for the future of the Korean film industry?
Students: We are very optimistic. We foresee the improvement and escalation of Korean films. And we yearn for Korean movies to attract even larger audiences than they do today. We hope to forge ahead in global entertainment.
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The students of Mokwon taught me a lot about the Korean film industry during our day together. The industry there is booming and it reflects the rapid development South Korea has undergone throughout the past few decades. Its rapid and creative technological advancements are absolutely astounding. If Korean film continues along this path, it appears there is no limit as to how huge it will become in the realm of global entertainment.
In addition, they incited me to raise several issues I have with American media. Why do American media continue to perpetuate hackneyed images of Asians? When will this come to an end? Why is there so little Asian American representation? When are Asian American actors who fluently speak English going to be able to abandon portraying characters who speak with phony foreign accents? Hopefully, a new day shall grace Asian Americans and allow us to create a new image, one of our own making.
To my pleasant surprise, the students also taught me a lot about myself on their campus visit. The thought occurred to me that most passersby on campus probably assumed I was also a tourist, and I realized that I do not have to choose between being Korean and being American. Why does so much controversy surround the concept of being both Korean and American? Why do so many critics insist that being one automatically disqualifies you from being the other? Besides the language barrier (although their English was excellent considering they do not speak it on a regular basis), we were not all that different from one another. At the core, we were just college students attempting to figure out what to do with our lives.
My becoming their unofficial tour guide at the last minute that day was unfortunate for them because I am no UCLA sage. There was a Korean American man from a Los Angeles tourist agency who helped me translate, and to whom I was incredibly grateful, but I wanted to try and connect with the students on my own. Imagine my trying to explain that Professor Sherman Klump (portrayed by Eddie Murphy) ran up Janss Steps in The Nutty Professor in broken Korean. But the Mokwon students seemed to enjoy their visit to UCLA. They were all extremely gracious and patient. The experience turned out to be exceptionally rewarding. I, too, expect the Korean film industry to elevate to unknown heights of brilliance and excellence, especially in the hands of these awesome individuals.
Date Posted: 2/20/2004