February 23, 2024

The growing media and entertainment connections between Korean Americans and those Koreans living in Korea may be changing both communities, a public discussion at the Busan International Film Festival on Friday heard.

“Being in a room full of fans, feels like they accepted me as a member of the family. It feels like, culturally, Korea [may be in] a moment of transition,” said John Cho.

He was joined in the debate by actor-director Justin Chon (“Gook”), director Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”) and actor Steven Yeun, who are all either first or second generation immigrants to the U.S.

They were careful not to speak about their current movies or projects out of respect for SAG strike protocols, but the avoidance of promotional niceties permitted a wider-ranging and more philosophical discussion. It touched on issues of identity, generational change and the development of the post-pandemic, streaming-era global village.

“The reception I’ve had [in Busan] feels connective, not foreign, like living in a global reality,” said Yeun. “There’s an honoring of the separateness, but also of the cohesiveness. Nobody is claiming ownership of anything.

“Korean commonality is a beautiful thing. The ‘Korean Wave’ is deeply healing. Even watching [Netflix reality TV competition show] ‘Physical 100’ is awesome. It is redefining our own imagery.”

Chon also said that the recent global success of Korean TV shows had helped non-Asians tune into Korean culture in a way that has never happened before. “My white counterparts now have something they can relate to. Our culture, our upbringing. That wasn’t the case when I was growing up,” he said.

Though Chon said that all four speakers were very different kinds of artists, Lee noted a common, pioneering spirit within the Korean Americans working in entertainment.

“These guys have had to work without too many models. None of our parents did this, made movies. They’ve got passion. A ‘let’s figure it out’ attitude. There is a deep Korean spirit of courage and boldness run through all these works,” said Lee.

Cho used a culinary metaphor to explain how Korean culture in Korea and Korea American culture have moved on different tracks. “Korean food in America is a moment frozen in time. It is the Korean food of my parents. That taste does not exist any more in Korea itself. Korea has moved on,” he said.

Lee said that his mother has a video recording of him as a baby reciting the phrase, “You’re a Korean, don’t forget that” to her American son. “There’s a sense of loss of a place that I don’t fully understand,” Lee said.

In response to an audience question about storytelling differences between the two sides of the Pacific, Chon at first tried a structural explanation. “American films value plot more, the final twist or the well-constructed plot. In the East, the emotional arc or philosophical arc is prioritized,” he said before going on to praise a Netflix series in which Yeun starred. “I love how ‘Beef’ bridges that gap. It put East and West into one stew and contained lots of Han.”

The debate was not completely strike free. But the speakers framed it almost as part of the Korean American struggle.

“The strike is a very righteous act to protect writers and artists. Sometimes the bottom line gets in the way of understanding individuals. Some people don’t have a chance to weather the storms. It is proper that we ask for what is right and protect the future of the craft,” said Yeun.

Cho spoke specifically about AI and entertainment. “There is a fear of people losing their jobs. My interest is in continuing human expression. One way to do that is to professionalize. Better wages and conditions help people stay in the business and for the art to get better.”

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