Filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung and critic Jeffrey Overstreet in Conversation
If you’d prefer to read the interview, we’ve included a transcript below.
Jeffrey Overstreet: Lee Isaac Chung, it is a delight to interview you again. This is becoming an annual tradition for you and me, and this time for The Image Podcast, which is very exciting for me, but welcome.
Lee Isaac Chung: Always good to be interviewed by you, Jeffrey.
JO: Well, it’s great to be a friend of someone you’re also a fan of. And I’ve been a fan of your work for more than a decade now. The first time I interviewed you, you were in your studio in New York, and I was Skyping you into a Glen Workshop film seminar. The second time, you were in Pasadena, right? I was teaching a class at Seattle Pacific University about film. Now we’re in person, so this is already my favorite. Where are you now?
LIC: We’re in South Pasadena right now still, and then after we get back from this workshop, we have about a week to pack up because we’re moving to Korea. So we’re headed to Incheon, South Korea. The University of Utah has a campus out there, and earlier this year, they asked me if I might be interested in teaching film history. We went out there and we looked at the campus, and we just talked with the professors there, and then decided, “Okay, we’ll try this out.” So I’m on a year-long contract, and I’m going to see just how long we’ll actually end up being over there.
JO: Did this opportunity come to you as a surprise, or is it the sort of teaching work you were pursuing?
LIC: I was looking for teaching work. I started to think that I’d like to work with younger people and work with younger generations of filmmakers. So I was looking for teaching work, but I was looking in LA. One of my advisors from Utah was writing a recommendation letter for me. Anyway, he saw the rejections I was getting from these LA schools, and he said he’d love to hire me. And then, “In fact, I have this job opening in South Korea. Are you interested?”
We weren’t wanting to go overseas or go to Korea, we were quite happy with life in Los Angeles. But this all happened, so we’re packing our bags now and heading over there.
JO: Have you spent time there before?
LIC: I try to go to the festivals there, the Busan Film Festival, whenever there’s a reason to go. I’ve gone there a number of times, and I still have some family over there, so yeah. But this will be my first time actually living there.
JO: Well, we’ll get to some of your family history and connections in Korea later on. So you’ve led the film seminar here at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, is it three times now?
LIC: This is the second time.
JO: Okay. All right. The first time, I had the privilege of being a student in that class, and you took us on a tour of films from all over the world, films that most people weren’t really familiar with, that dug deep into questions of history and conscience, but that also asked us to do a lot of work, a lot of poetic interpretation of what was going on in those films.
And that didn’t really surprise me, because your work tends to remind me of great filmmakers of meditative cinema. And I’m particularly grateful for the study you gave us of the music videos of Kahlil Joseph, which that was a real surprise. We didn’t expect a day on music videos of Beyoncé.
But in learning about him, I’ve actually gained a vocabulary that I can communicate with my students in ways I didn’t expect, so I’m grateful for that.
LIC: Oh, that’s great.
JO: This time, though, you’re doing something very different with your Glen Workshop film seminar. Can you tell us about your vision for this workshop and how it’s working out?
LIC: So this arose two years ago when I was here. I became really good friends with Claude Wilkinson, the poet. He was teaching the poetry workshop. I was listening to him, hearing what he was doing in his class, and I just thought it was great. One of his students was also a fan of the way the class was running, and he was providing some exercises each day for writing. And the thought occurred to me as I was going home that, actually, that’s something that I would love to take in a poetry course.
But also, why not cinema? Why can’t we do that in filmmaking? So that’s kind of the idea I pitched back then. “Hey, maybe we should try a cinema workshop in which students can work on something every day with their iPhones.” And maybe at the end, I’ll surprise them and tell them, “Hey, you have to edit all this together now.” So that was the initial idea. So anyway, after we had decided that we would go ahead with this class, then the idea entered that actually, it’d be interesting to do this and actually try to make a narrative film, to work in the realm of fiction rather than . . .
I figured if we’re all making films with iPhones and then editing them later, they would all kind of resemble documentaries, and I wanted to resist against that and see, can we make a fiction film? All the students are working on fiction films, but they’re completely improvised. So they go out in groups of three, and they each take turns being the filmmaker while the other two take turns being the actors. It’s been pretty interesting.
JO: Oh, okay, they’re in front of the camera too, then.
LIC: Yes and that’s one of the aspects that I wasn’t anticipating, that actually when they’re actors, they also feel like they’re creators. And of course that would be the case, but that didn’t enter my mind.
JO: Well, it’s such a collaborative medium. Can you talk a little bit about your collaboration with Sam Anderson? I mean, I’ve seen four of your films at this point, and I believe he’s been involved in some way with just about all of them, right?
LIC: Yes. Yes, he has.
JO: And now you’re helping him with a new film of his.
LIC: That’s right.
JO: Normally the director gets the credit for the film. I mean, we could get into all of the good questions related to auteur theory, but can you talk a little bit about your perspective on film as a collaborative effort, and what are they learning about that in this context?
LIC: Well, working with Sam, we’ve been friends for a long time, and we went to college together and we didn’t know each other that well in college, but we reconnected in New York when we both realized we’re trying to make films. And I think the first thing that we did together was we went to a screening of an old Japanese film by Mizoguchi. We were two of the very few people who were at that screening, and we just hit it off then because we both really loved the film.
We thought, this is a great film. We went and had dinner afterwards. This was before we had made our first film, Munyurangabo. We would get together every week and just talk about cinema. I think that is what was the energy needed to launch us towards that first film. All the ideas we were think, I feel like Munyurangabo was born out of a certain way of thinking about films and a desire to do something that we were both wanting to approach the medium in a new way.
So that was always important to me in that film, and then also the films that followed, that it’s always born out of a certain conversation that Sam and I were having. He often had the credit as the screenwriter, but he’s always, in my mind, a very close collaborator. Even on set, he would give me his thoughts on how a certain scene should go. Ultimately, with I Have Seen My Last Born, our documentary, we ended up just directing that together, and having a co-director credit and all that stuff. It’s just been a good process.
We seem to do things at the same time. It’s really strange. We both shared with each other, “I think our family’s going to move to LA.” And, “Oh my goodness, okay, so are we.” When I told him that we’re going to have a kid, he said, “Oh yeah, we’re having a kid too.” The timing seems to be in sync, so there’s something in sync about the way we look at films and life itself.
JO: That’s great to find a creative collaborator who is on your wavelength like that. Artists are always in a wrestling match with their work, trying to decide how much control is too much control, and how much should I let things happen. I suppose in some ways, that’s probably even more so for a filmmaker, because you can’t control everything that’s happening in front of the camera, whereas a poet might be sitting there, and any word that’s going to appear, it’s up to the poet to put it there.
Have you been, and are you still surprised when you watch your collaborations, when you watch Munyurangabo or Lucky Life, or any of these films you’ve done with Sam?
LIC: I’d have to say no, because I don’t ever watch them again.
JO: Oh, really?
LIC: Once I’ve seen it at the end, that’s it. I decide not to watch it. But I will say this about that collaboration and control. I think with filmmaking, there’s just so much anxiety with money that I understand why we want so much control. Everything has to be perfect, and there’s so much money that’s being spent on the project that it’s a huge risk, so you want to know every step what’s going to happen.
That’s why the script is so important and who you’re working with to execute that script. But unfortunately, I feel like the way that I’m drawn to this medium, and I think Sam as well, the idea of finding something new on set is so important, and going against the idea of control, letting control go so that you can really discover something new in a moment. That’s something that’s very important to me, and I feel like that does come out of collaboration.
That’s what is necessary, one, as a support network, that you’re equally in this together, and that hedges you against that anxiety that you feel about what you’re doing. And then secondly, that it’s within this community and collaboration that you really discover new things. That’s what’s exciting to me. In the past with Rwanda, the film in Rwanda, that discovery is taking place between, for instance, me and the people who were filming, the community, the place. Then in other films, like even the film I made with Amanda Plummer, I felt like there’s a lot of discovery in terms of just her craft and her work as an artist and an actor.
JO: I’d have to say that my favorite moments in any of your films, it seems like we’ve talked about this before, that those were things that surprised you, that were not part of the plan. And for those who don’t know your films, I should probably run through them quickly. You’ve mentioned Munyurangabo in 2007, which you made in Rwanda with a bunch of young people there, and discovering a story there.
I think my favorite thing in that film is this explosive poem that is spoken directly to the camera. You’ve talked before about how that was kind of a surprise. Lucky Life, 2010. I don’t know that I could point out one particular moment in that film. It’s such a different film. I mean, that’s set in North Carolina, if I’m not mistaken about a young couple struggling with questions related to their marriage, but also grieving the loss of a friend. My favorite thing in that film is just the radiant performance by Kenyon Adams, which is not something you can plan. Abigail Harm, of course. I mean, you already mentioned how improvisational in a sense that was working with Amanda Plummer. She’s so unpredictable and hilarious. I love her. I Have Seen My Last Born, that even the documentary, it was something very poetic and graceful and unexpected. Just a moment, a scene of a woman in an alley doing the washing that I found most affecting in that film.
I can’t really explain how it affects this larger story you’re telling about a man who’s trying to be a faithful and loving father in a culture where there are not many faithful, loving fathers, that moment of humble service just seemed to be in dialogue with the rest of the film. Are there techniques that you’ve learned to try to create those spaces or make occasions where lightning is more likely to strike, if you know what I mean, where those surprises are more likely to happen?
LIC: First of all, I really like your rundown of the work. These sound really good.
JO: They are really good. I want more people to see them.
LIC: Aw, thank you. Deep in my heart, in my being, I’m a very anxious person in general when it comes to needing control. I know that that’s bad for me, but then there’s also this side of me that pushes me towards trying to take a risk and trying to do something that doesn’t let me become solidified in that sort of anxiety. So there’s a cognitive aspect in doing this where I’m constantly thinking, okay, what’s going to be the most stressful, anxiety-producing way of making a film?
I seem to gravitate towards that. That seems the most worthwhile for me. The greater the risk, in some way. Sam and I, we were just researching a script we wanted to write about what’s going on in Rwanda now. It would be a follow up to Munyurangabo. Four days before heading to Rwanda, I just called him up and said, “Hey, let’s make a documentary.” The idea just came into my mind, and I just called him right away and said, “Why don’t we just turn this into a documentary?”
So we knew we’d just be there for four days, and we decided, “Okay, let’s just shoot an actual film while we’re there.” We were scrambling, getting all the things that we needed for the trip, and all that stuff. I love doing that, because it was against my better nature to actually try to have something quite well-prepared, and instead it forced me to just go into the situation and try to create something.
JO: So in thinking about your different techniques and approaches, I end up thinking a lot about the artists who your films remind me of. The poet, Scott Cairns, earlier this week was saying that he keeps a stack of books on his desk while he’s writing poetry that are sort of the mentors, the faculty, so to speak, the voices he wants in his head as he’s working. Most artists begin, perhaps even in childhood, through imitation.
Is imitation instrumental in your work in some way? Do you have those voices in your head while you’re working? Because your rather improvisational style strikes me as quite different than a lot of the artists that you talk about. So how is in your peripheral vision as you’re making films, and has that changed over time?
LIC: I think imitation is definitely a part of the work. Even with Munyurangabo, I felt we were so influenced by Terrence Malick and Abbas Kiarostami, those two films makers, in particular Days of Heaven and The Wind Will Carry Us. So those two films, it’s almost like we took what those two plots are doing, the two stories, and meshed them together. And then when I was on set, I found that I was using the camera the way that I felt I had seen in Wong Kar-wai’s films and [Hoshou Shen’s 00:15:41] films.
I was just imitating these four filmmakers who I really loved. Then after I had made that film, I felt like, oh, I can’t do that anymore, and I tried to scrap that whole idea. So I ended up imitating other things.
JO: It seems to me that Abigail Harm could have come from an entirely different library of influences.
JO: It feels almost more like a more abstract, science fiction, kind of Terry Gilliam fantasy. I don’t know if that name comes to mind for you, but it’s remarkable to me that you can sort of shift styles so dramatically. It might make it hard to recognize a Lee Isaac Chung film.
LIC: I try to think about that, because it seems like the filmmakers I really like, and artists in general, are the ones who stick to a theme or an approach, and they’re just very faithful to it, and it seems like they’re constantly refining and revising within this very specific way of doing art. Yasujiro Ozu is someone who I respect, and any film of his you pick up and look at, if you haven’t seen all of them a few times, you would think, I think I’ve seen this one before. They’re all kind of similar.
JO: Right. He’s always wrestling with the same questions about family and respecting your elders and generational change. But you don’t feel that in your work, that there’s sort of a core question that keeps coming up?
LIC: I think my issue is that any time I make something, I just feel like, okay, now that’s just crap, and I have to do something completely different now, opposed to what I have just done. So that’s constantly in my mind where I’m fighting against what I had just done. I feel like there is a schizophrenia in the work I’m doing, and I’m trying to figure that out, because I don’t necessarily like that. I want to hone what I’m doing. But I don’t know where that comes from, either. I don’t try to psychoanalyze myself, either, so I just run with it.
JO: Some of your more recent work has really surprised me. I’m thinking of the films I’ve seen on Instagram. You’ve been doing more and more as a father with a camera. But your home movies always strike me as so much more accomplished and surprising. Can you talk a little bit about your family’s participation in your process, or maybe how fatherhood is influencing you as an artist? I’d also love to hear you talk about Valerie, your wife, because I know that any artist who is married, it really is a partnership. I’m married to another writer, and we influence each other’s works in ways that are hard to measure, so I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about that as well.
JO: I don’t know if you feel this way, but I don’t know if I could even do this work without her, just her support and her voice in my process as I share ideas and what I’m thinking of doing just to reflect them back to her. Valerie works in the art department, she’s an art director in the films, and that’s been very important for me, too. Also just to be with her as we’re making films together, there’s something about that I hold very dear. That might be one of my very favorite aspects of this work, that we can share in it together and create something together.
LIC: Even with the first film, Munyurangabo, I was following Valerie to Rwanda where she was already doing work in the summers with a community there, and she wanted me to go there with her. So I kind of owe even the impetus for that first film to her, that she set the situation for me to come to Rwanda, and then I had to figure out something to do over there.
I would say I haven’t really made a fiction film, as I would have wanted, since we’ve had a child. After having our daughter, my viewpoint of what I'm doing has changed a lot, so I’m trying to think of more about the legacy of the work as well. I think about her watching the films, my daughter watching the films that I’m making when she’s older, and seeing what it is I’m doing and what I’m working through. And I’ve been trying to figure that out, what kind of films I want to make. So that’s a big part of what’s changed me.
In the meantime, I’m making lots of these home videos like any father, taking tons of pictures and sharing too many of those online. The Instagram films were fun because I was basically practicing for the Glen, and trying to figure out, what kind of films can we make on these iPhones?
I just told my daughter, “Can you write a script for me?” And she actually wrote it instantly. She just said, “Okay. Here’s the script. I’m Batman.” There was absolutely no hesitation. She just completely wrote everything out with such assurance that this is the way you tell a story, and this is a good story.
JO: That’s great.
LIC: I was inspired by that.
JO: So another collaborator.
LIC: That’s right.
JO: Well, this might really build your audience. People love home videos about kids, so it could take you in a whole new direction.
LIC: I think more people have seen those Instagram films now than all my other work.
JO: Well, a film like I Have Seen My Last Born is so specific and unusual, and, like you said, improvisational. I’m wondering, when you go into a project like that, you have to know that this is probably not going to be a big box office hit unless really incredible things happen. It’s more probably bound for the film festival circuit and people who know your work, or people who are interested in Rwanda. Right away, the frame for your audience starts narrowing.
Does that bother you or give you anxiety about the project as you work on it? Do you worry about your audience or think about them much while you’re working, or do you feel more like you are following a question that you need to follow, a vision that has something to say to you, and you’ll think about the audience later?
LIC: I feel like I am one of those people who are a little bit delusional as I work in thinking that, oh, everyone’s going to love this. So I write things and I assume that they are commercially minded in some way, but then I’ll get feedback saying, “Oh, this is quite an art house film.” I think that comes out of the fact that me and a lot of the friends I’m geared to, we just love certain types of films, so we just assume that they’re audience friendly. So, at the same time, I find it a little tragic that a lot of these films just end up at film festivals and they don’t get seen by a wider audience.
JO: Do you watch a lot of popular films? Do you go to the movies on a Friday night?
LIC: I try to. What’s holding me back is just being a father to a five-year-old at this point. So that’s what holds me back. But I do love . . . Spielberg is someone who I just respect so much, and I just wonder, how does he have that gene or that view in which he understands what such a wide audience will love? I feel like that’s a gift.
JO: Even you look back to Capra in the past, there are so many filmmakers who just knew how to tell a story in a way that would reach so many people and touch so many people and do it with incredible craft. So I admire that, and I aspire to that, actually, but it’s not easy. It’s not. I almost feel like you can’t work towards it. There’s something natural about it.
LIC: I’m really surprised that you bring up Spielberg, because he strikes me as so different, so altogether contrary to your methods. He’s a very, I don’t want to say controlling like a tyrant or a Svengali. He plans everything so rigorously. He storyboards everything so rigorously. In some of his more recent films, I’m seeing the criticism more and more that his films seem like movies about other movies almost, more than they are about people in the world right now.
JO: And yet people connect with it so powerfully, so I’m just fascinated by that contrast. When I watch your films, I feel like I’m in Rwanda meeting this young man who’s struggling to be a good father and to redeem his sort of ruined marriage. When I watch a Spielberg film, I’m thinking about Jimmy Stewart. I’m thinking about All the President’s Men while I watch The Post. I’m not sure that’s a problem, and I’m not even sure what the question is here, but I’m just really surprised that you bring up someone who’s so controlling, or so involved with every little step of every little shot, and yet that’s still inspiring to you.
LIC: Yeah, it is. What you just mentioned with the film, I’ve Seen My Last Born is about a father who is struggling and wanting to be—
JO: —to be a faithful father, but to redeem sort of a ruined marriage or relationship.
LIC: That sounds like a Spielberg film to me.
JO: That’s true. That’s true.
LIC: That’s a Spielberg storyline.
JO: Broken families are at the heart of almost everything he does. Even E.T., it’s so subtle, but the absence of the father in that film is enormous. So maybe that’s the draw for you, is that that really is something that you clearly care about.
LIC: I think he means it. When he’s making films about these types of families and situations, there’s a sincerity there that I honor, that I think is great.
JO: A real sense of heart in spite of all of the masterful control. Do you find that theological questions come into play while you’re working? I realize your films . . . Perhaps Lucky Life is the one that most directly addresses faith-related questions, but then Munyurangabo began with Valerie’s work with Youth With a Mission. And so in a strange way, that story came about because of an evangelical endeavor, so to speak.
Is that on your mind as you’re working, or is filmmaking a spiritual practice or a spiritual discipline for you? Do you think of it in those terms?
LIC: I do. I think it matters to me a great deal, so I feel like whatever I’m doing, that’s something that’s in my mind. But I feel like with one of my films, I don’t know if I should even name it, but I felt like that that wasn’t there, that that wasn’t part of the practice. It was almost like I was just trying to make a film and just got carried away in the idea of the process, the craft. With that element absent in it, it just almost wasn’t able to even finish the production.
So going through something like that makes you realize, okay, there’s got to be something there that is much deeper in what you’re doing. You can’t just be making a film to make a film or just to entertain people, but there’s got to be some real meat there. For me, my own wrestling with faith and with God, with the world that He’s created. Sometimes I feel like I’m making films, and I kind of pray and make a deal with God, like, “Look, I’m making this film, and I’m making it imagining that this is all there is, that let’s say there is no God,” that sort of thing.
I want to take an approach to this film so that people can enter into that space. So I pray these things even as I work or write. I’m going to work with this assumption, but God, I’d like you to surprise me somehow, surprise me in this and show up somehow. It matters to me a great deal. And we’re talking about audience. I feel a great level of solidarity with the audience. As we all go to these theaters and we sit down in the dark and watch these things, we’re all searching. We’re all kind of lost in some way.
I want to speak to that situation of all of us gathering and trying to figure our lives out and looking up to the screen and play of light and figuring out what it’s all about. So in that way, I’m very much concerned about the audience and very much concerned about theology.
JO: Figuring our lives out. That seems like another theme that comes up in your work. When I look sort of at the map of your career, it feels like the journey to filmmaking was driven by that kind of question. I mean, I’m always amazed at how you ended up making these films in Rwanda and here, considering that your parents were immigrants from Korea. You grew up on a farm in Arkansas?
LIC: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JO: Then you went to school not for filmmaking, but ended up choosing filmmaking late in that process. It has seemed like a search and sort of improvisational and full of surprises. Can you talk a little bit about how your parents’ experience in Korea and then here has shaped you as an artist and the stories you’re interested in, and then maybe how life on the farm did as well?
JO: There was a lot of farming in Munyurangabo, for example.
LIC: I had a joke with Sam on set for Munyurangabo. As I was filming the farming scenes, I said, “You know what Kurosawa did for war and battle scenes? I want to do that for farming scenes. I want to be the most epic farming scene filming filmmaker ever.” My dad had this idea. First of all, it was pretty crazy for him to leave Korea. He left in 1977. There were a lot of Koreans who were starting to come to the U.S. then, but he just had no resources, and he came.
He saved up for a plane ticket, and he had $200 left, and that’s all he had. He just told my mom, and my sister was a baby at the time, “I’m going to go to America and try to start a life for us. And if I succeed, come. I’ll send for you, and you’ll come live with me.” And he moved to the U.S. with $200 and moved to Denver and worked every kind of job. He was a janitor. He worked at a French restaurant, and he said he developed a palate for French food in that time. And ultimately fell into this line of work called chicken sexing, which is something that a lot of Koreans and other Asians were doing at the time in the U.S., in which chicken sexers, they look at little baby chicks hours after they’ve been hatched, and they determine if it’s male or female. It's a very difficult job. It was highlighted in that Dirty Jobs television show. So that just tells you it’s one of those jobs that’s so bad it can be an entertaining spectacle. My dad fell into that work and ultimately saved enough for my mom and sister to come. And then my dad had another idea that, “Hey, I don’t want to be a chicken sexer all my life, so I’m going to start a farm.”
So he moved us to Arkansas to the Ozark Mountains, I don’t know how he chose this place, but he just chose a place that’s in the middle of nowhere. Obviously, we didn’t have much money, so my dad just chose the place where land is very cheap. But he felt like mentally, he’s working out which land is cheap yet the most fertile. So I think that’s kind of what guided him to this certain place. And—
JO: That sounds like filmmaking.
LIC: That’s right.
How can you do things cheaply, and what territory is most fertile for the imagination?
I’d say the other element that is a lot like filmmaking was that just the scope of his idea and the risks that he took were, in a certain sense, it requires you to be a little bit crazy. I don’t want to say that my dad’s crazy, but there’s something that we do as filmmakers that’s pretty crazy in deciding, okay, I’m going to create this entire world and film it and spend all this money. That’s kind of what my dad did. He thought, I’m going to create this world for my family and this farm, and spend all this money, and it’s going to be great. This is going to be great.
That’s kind of the way that filmmakers approach it. But the thing is, he didn’t really ask my mom any permission for this, so he just kind of bought this farm, and then we showed up. My mom, she was very anxious and didn’t know what my dad is doing and was very upset with him. So just as a side note, if you’re going to start a farm, you probably want to ask your wife or otherwise. I’ve seen what that does to a relationship.
So, what we were talking about earlier, I feel like that’s also something that I’ve inherited. My dad is just a risk taker and will do all sorts of crazy visionary things that he thinks will be amazing, and then it’s always my mom who responds with lots of anxiety, and she’s the one who’s reasoning out where this is going to go and what’s going to happen. I just have that tension within me as I work. There’s that balance of doing something, and you’re causing lots of people to take risks with you.
Any filmmaker, you make a film, there’s a lot of cost for the family who’s involved. Sometimes you’re traveling so much, your family doesn’t see you. Sometimes you’re risking the resources that your family has. But I feel like you can’t be blind to that. Any artist, you can’t be blind to that level of risk and that level of sacrifice that you’re asking and demanding of people. There’s this certain balance that’s being made, the craziness, but also you have to be rational and understand what you’re asking people to do. You have to be a little anxious about it.
JO: How do they think about what you’re doing now? Are they movie-goers?
LIC: My dad is a huge cinema buff, where he loves films, but they’re also very practical in their thinking. Even lately, my mom’s been asking me, “Is it too late to go to dental school? Can you go and be a dentist?” I think they do wish that I was working in something that was very stable. I think they’re very happy that I’m going to be a professor, even if it’s just for a year. In Korea, being a professor is actually considered a stable and good job, so I think finally they’re able to have some peace for a little bit, however long I’m going to be there.
JO: I think that’s pretty common for a lot of artists, the struggle with the parents’ concerns about, “Is this going to hold you up and your family over time?”
JO: Well, you have a lot to share with the artists here at the Glen Workshop, and I’m curious to know. I mean, you came back. That’s always a good thing at the Glen Workshop when an instructor comes back. That means something must have gone okay the first time. But this is a strange place. It’s a strange community. You’re in Santa Fe. It’s a very different kind of environment than you’re probably used to. It’s a very different community. It’s a faith-focused community. We spend all day exploring theological questions here as we work on art. What is it about this place or this event that brought you back?
LIC: I was talking to one of the students yesterday, and he’s been coming back for many years, and it’s this one-on-one dialogue. The one-on-one dialogues he finds here are just incredible. To me, I think that’s been the big thing, is that I’ve met people and individually talking to them throughout the week. Last time I was here, a couple of friends I made, Claude Wilkinson was one, and this other guy. Ryan was one of my students who I became friends with as well.
It’s the relationships, really. Within that setting of every day, we have morning devotion together, we break bread together, and then we hear artists talking about the work, their work, and we kind of are in that space of having to think about faith and art. That’s just a wonderful mixture. I really enjoy it, so I was very happy that I was given the chance to come back. In fact, last year I was asked to come and teach the cinema workshop, not the one where we’re making films, but where we’re watching. But at that time, I thought I was going to be making a film, but I ended up not, so I said no. But I was glad I could come this time.
JO: Well, this is my 14th Glen Workshop in a row, and yeah, I can’t measure how the relationships that have started here have changed my life. I think about them every day. I’m in dialogue with probably one person at least from the Glen Workshop every day. So I’m particularly exciting for me to have one of my favorite filmmakers join the club, so to speak.
But it’s a remarkable thing that Image provides here so that we can have a conversation like this. Can you say a little bit about where you feel your attention turning now in filmmaking? You’re about to move, you’re about to start teaching in a whole new context. That’s probably demanding most of your attention, I would guess, but do you have ideas that are growing or ambitions for the next few projects?
LIC: I do. I’m wrestling through various things. In fact, last time I was here with Claude, he was encouraging me to try to make a film about chicken sexing.
This whole thing, we were talking about family. And then Valerie as well, when I was talking to her about it, she completely agreed that I should try to make something about Arkansas and growing up there. So that’s the last thing that . . . I just finished a script, and I’m actually sharing a few pages here on Friday night. And now that we’re moving to Korea, and that project that I’ve just finished writing, I’ve got to wait a long time, as you know, to get financing and all that stuff. So now I’m turning my attention to writing other stories.
One thing is, I’d like to make something in Korea by the end of the summer, and I’m going to try to do the improvisatory, very low budget thing over there. But I’m also trying to start writing a more commercially-minded project, a wider audience. We’re talking about Spielberg. I do want to try to take that challenge. Rather than just thinking about it or assuming that it’s impossible, I’m going to try it. I’m going to try to do something that’s a little more genre and maybe action-oriented, but we’ll see how that goes.
JO: Well, there are a lot of great action films that have come out of Korea.
LIC: That’s true.
JO: Right now it’s difficult for me to think about you moving to Korea without entertaining certain heavy questions considering the state of the world right now, relationships between the United States and specifically North Korea. Does that have any influence on your thought about your art and maybe what stories you want to tell? Are there political concerns that we’re reading about in the news every day speaking into your work? Or do you want to wrestle with any of that, or is there any sense of a protest film? I don’t know, I don’t want to plant ideas in your head, but surely what’s going on in the world right now specifically has got to be on your mind as you think about moving there.
LIC: A filmmaker we both like, Lee Chang-dong, he just made a film called Burning about what he feels is going on with the youth in Korea. I feel like I’m kind of interested in those questions a little more, economic questions about the way people feel in terms of income inequality, and yeah, younger people having a more difficult time going into adulthood because of the lack of opportunities, like resources or ability to have a home, or things that we used to take for granted, I think, in the past.
I think those are on my mind more than North Korea and those geopolitical concerns. My mom and dad were really worried when they found out I would go to Korea, in fact, because my dad was convinced that there was going to be a war very soon, as a lot of Koreans who are living overseas seem to be. But within Korea, what I hear from friends over there is that people aren’t really thinking too much about it, and there is instead a bigger movement of just desiring more equality within South Korea. So I think it’s an interesting time, an interesting time to go over there.
JO: You bring up questions of equality being on the minds of Koreans right now, and so here you are getting ready to go there. But that does make me think back about your experience in Arkansas. As the son of Korean immigrants, it’s got to be a very interesting time for you to be an American right now. I wonder if you feel that your work in any way speaks to some of the burning questions right now. I mean, they’ve been there all along, right, in American society.
Right now, it seems like we are facing again huge questions about who we are as Americans and what that means when it comes to racial diversity, different communities and different cultures coming together in America. Here you are, someone who has gone to Rwanda and told Rwandan stories and American stories.
You seem to be such a sort of hybrid of interests and cultures just in your own work, so can you talk a little bit about how growing up in the South and having some of those questions of identity, and perhaps you’ve had encounters with prejudice, but how have these questions in America shaped your work? And do you feel like you have something to speak into those questions that are right now so hot?
LIC: It’s something I think about a lot. The script I just finished, in fact, one of the things that motivated me was just the election. It was seeing the way the conversation had suddenly shifted to how people are talking about white farmers and talking about, “What is this white farmer voting bloc or middle America voting bloc?” It was interesting to hear my peers and the media talking about these people as a bloc, and for me, these are just people I grew up with.
I felt the situation was a lot more complex than people are saying in the news media or whatever. So we went to Arkansas at the time of a farm crisis. There was a farm crisis happening in the 80s, I don’t know if you all remember, in which there were farmers committing suicide and going and shooting their bankers, and things like that, for all sorts of geopolitical events that were out of their control. It came out of the Cold War. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons my dad was able to get such cheap land as well. Growing up there amongst a community, and I could feel there was a feeling of struggle in many people’s lives. The school I went to, there were a lot of students who didn’t have running water, for instance. That was a point of gossip. We would gossip about, “This guy doesn’t have a toilet in his house,” things like that.
The base level of our economic status was quite low compared to other communities in America. On the one hand, I felt an outsider to that, and I received a lot of racism at certain times in my life. But on the other hand, many days I would forget that I’m a Korean guy. I felt like I’m a fellow farmer. I’m wearing cowboy boots and going to the same dances, chasing after the same girls, things like that. So I think for me, any time that the racism would strike up, it was always such a jarring thing.
I felt very deeply that this idea of categories that we erect against each other, from a very early age, I just could see that they were so stupid and arbitrary. My dad was very inspirational to me, because looking back, one of his best friends was this ex-convict farmhand who would just go and work at various farms, and he was missing teeth, and he’d be what you’d consider redneck, a hick. He’d be someone that a lot of people might make fun of, but for my dad, it was his best friend, and he was the first house guest we had in our house.
What drives me crazy, I think, with what’s happening now is that we’re continuing to think about what happened with the election in terms of categories, like the white farmers and what their concerns are, and a little less about a certain shared humanity, the motivations that are driving people. Why are some people in middle America, why are they upset? Do we even realize that there’s a new farm crisis that’s brewing in middle America? A lot of people don’t know that there’s actually quite a lot of problems that farmers are facing these days.
So I think initially, even as I was starting to make films, those ideas of categories were something that I wanted to react against. Going to Rwanda, dealing with this idea of Hutu versus Tutsi, that was immediately interesting to me. Also, it was interesting for me to think, why can’t a Korean guy from Arkansas go and make a film over there? Why do I need to make a film about the Asian American experience? I feel like even that comes from cultural institutions where they say, “Well, you are a Korean American. You need to [crosstalk 00:47:00]—”
This is what is accepted, this is what your best work will be if you do this. So I do feel like my childhood background, that background of growing up in Arkansas and feeling a deep sense of solidarity with people over there, at the same time feeling like an outsider over there, that has informed a lot of the work. After Arkansas, I went to the Ivy League, and suddenly I felt like, okay, now I’m an outsider with all these people here because I’m a farmer, a Southern farming kid, and all these people, they have no idea what they’re talking about.
So everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve kind of felt like I’m an outsider. It’s not like after I left the South, suddenly I found the community that was mine. Even when I’m with Asian Americans, most Asian Americans grew up in the cities, and they have their own particular experience and ways that they talk about things and see things. Their parents grew up running shops and stores or whatever. Some of them were professors and things. I don’t relate that well to them all the time. I don’t think they understand what’s going on in the world sometimes, you know?
LIC: So it’s a weird way to grow up, I’ll just say that. It’s a weird way to grow up, but I’m so glad that I have that. I’m so glad that I was able to live in that way. It doesn’t mean that I know things better than other people. I don’t want to come across sounding like that, like I have some secret knowledge about . . . I do find . . . I don’t know if you find this way. When you’re traveling, don’t you feel like suddenly, you travel outside of America or you travel outside of your place, suddenly you can write something about your home because you’re outside of that situation.
JO: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. I mean, I write fantasy novels, and so I’m making up world and cultures and things. And yet when I’m done, I look at it and go, yep, there I am. Those are the questions I was wrestling with. People might look at one of the fairy tales I’ve written or the fantasies I’ve written and say, “Oh, I think this is about this political situation.” And I look at it, and I see questions that are central to my marriage or questions about my own faith journey in the middle there.
The more you talk about your experiences in Arkansas as a son of Korean immigrants, the more I understand the movie Munyurangabo, which is about farmers and about people who are divided by all kinds of scarring experiences. And the question at the heart of that film is, can this young man who carries so much rage and such deep wounds from the past be a part of this new family on the other side of the line that was central to the war? Can he be a part of a different community and be himself, and redeem something from what he’s been through? So it’s really interesting to see that very Rwandan story and see it sort of as a self-portrait for you.
And it’s a Korean story, too. I mean, the border that was put between North and South is quite arbitrary. It was put there by some American generals as they looked at a map and decided, “Okay, well let’s put it at that parallel line.” Sometimes these borders are coming from outside in a way.
So as you go back to working with your students for the second half of the week here, I mean, we’ve scratched the surface of so many questions just in this hour, and I feel like we could have just stuck with one of those questions and filled an hour, so we’ve been sort of erratic here, but you just have so much to offer them, I think, with your experiences. If there are one or two things you would like them to take away from this experience, what would that be?
LIC: The main thing that I was hoping to do with this course is that I want people to feel like they could just jump into making a film in the present. You don’t need to sit down and think and write and worry and spend years and years trying to create that masterpiece, but you could just jump in with the materials and the things that you have and start working. That’s a message that I want for them because it’s a message I want for myself as I sit and write and try to figure this out.
JO: That strikes me as sort of a recurring theme that I’m seeing more and more in the teachings of Christ, that people want to take what He’s doing and make it a big political moment, or they want to say, “Oh, let’s build a tabernacle here and preserve what you’re doing here.” Christ is always saying, “You know, what you’re putting out there as something to achieve is already here. And if you attend to the moment, everything you need is right here.”
I think that’s so crucial for artists, and you demonstrate that again and again and again. You take the collaborations that are happening in the place that you are and the resources available to you, and you make something that speaks powerfully into other paradigms to people in completely different contexts. So that attention to the immediate and the particular ends up saying the largest things, rather than trying to say something large and ending up with something general and forgettable. I think that’s a great lesson you’re bringing to them.
LIC: Thank you. That’s the ideal. It’s always a battle trying to achieve it.
JO: Well, I hope people will seek out your films if they haven’t seen them already. Is there one you are fond of recommending as a starting point? I mean, I’ve introduced Munyurangabo to a lot of people, but that’s because that was my entry point for your work.
LIC: I think Munyurangabo is the one that I tend to recommend too. And then Lucky Life is a personal favorite. I really enjoy that film.
JO: I do too. It’s beautiful.
LIC: Thank you.
JO: When I saw it, I had just seen The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, and what boggled my mind was, I think you had made this film before anybody had seen The Tree of Life. It would be easy for people to watch Lucky Life and say, “Oh wow, he was obviously influenced by that film.” But in a way, I think you got there first.
LIC: Hey, we use the same bridge to . . . He ends his film with a bridge, right?
JO: That’s true.
LIC: I used that exact bridge to start the film, so it’s kind of a weird . . .
JO: I wonder if he hacked into your computer and watched it.
LIC: Right? No, I highly doubt that. I highly, highly doubt even knows anything about that film.
JO: Well, I hope listeners will find Munyurangabo. What’s the best place to see it right now?
Munyurangabo, if you’re outside of the U.S., is available on Vimeo in high-definition, which I recommend. But if you’re in the U.S., I think right now Netflix isn’t streaming it anymore, but I think you can find it on iTunes if I’m not mistaken.
LIC: Okay. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Kanopy, which is a streaming service that’s getting more and more attention, but I believe that I showed my students Munyurangabo on Kanopy recently.
JO: Oh, really? Oh, good.
LIC: That is a service that you can access in a lot of places if you have a public library card. A lot of schools offer it. Seattle Pacific University offers it as a free service. So that’s another excellent place to discover films from all over the world that aren’t getting wide theatrical distribution, but are getting the attention of influential filmmakers around the world.
JO: Yes, definitely. Well, thank you for your time, and I hope you—
LIC: Thank you.
One of my highlights coming here is to see you, Jeffrey, thank you so much.
JO: Oh, thanks.
LIC: Thanks for sitting down with me.
JO: Well, we’ll hope the Glen Workshop continues so we can keep getting together.
LIC: Same here.
JO: We’ll do a follow up conversation someday.