The Best Korean United States of American Narrative Feature Filmmakers Of All Time!

STILL UNDER REVIEW BY THE HIGH COUNCIL OF THE A.U.S.o.A.N.F.F: Chris JunThe Main Character” I can’t figure out if this guy was born here or not. He has no biographical data on his site. If you have information, please let me know.

UPDATED (08.04.17) We have yet another inductee to the K.U.S.o.A.N.F.F. list. I pleased to present John Kwon aka Kwon Wootaak who directed “Always Be Boyz.” The film won the Special Jury Award at The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival last month and is playing at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. I am not 100% sure if he is actually 1.5 or 2nd generation Korean American, but according to his bio he “hails from Burbank” which means he grew up there. I will take it at face value. Welcome Kwon Kam-dokk!

Yes, it is time once again for an update on the pioneers of Korean
American Cinema. This list is a work in progress. Please help me update it if you have
additions. The rules are that the filmmaker must be of Korean descent,
be 1.5 or 2nd+ generation American and have made a feature narrative
film.

Below are reasons for and against why if we ever had to
elect one of them to represent us at the United Nations, they should be
considered THE representative of the KUSoANFF’s.

(FYI this list is in alphabetical order)

1.   Narhee Ahn “Purity

FOR:
She kicked ass getting her own DIY digital film Purity put together in
Delaware (which in and of itself, spending an extended period of time
in Delaware is a feat).

AGAINST: She’s from Delaware.


2.   James Bai “Puzzlehead

FOR:
Film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. Really impressive debut — a
film ten years in the making. And it was worth the wait.

AGAINST:
No Asian characters. Also, despite inspiring me to put this list
together, he hates the whole idea of it.

3.  Isaac Chung “Munyurangabo(thanks dorfie)

FOR:
Film premiered at Cannes. (I don’t think anyone else on the list has achieved that!)

AGAINST: The film is in the Kinyarwanda language (which though sounds like it may be Asian, is actually African)

4. Juwan ChungBaby

FOR: His film is a hyper-violent gangster movie.

AGAINST: Despite being a hyper-violent gangster film, the film is not about Koreans.

5. Joy Dietrich “Tie A Yellow Ribbon

FOR:
Film revolves around a cross-section of young Asian American women
including the main character an adoptee which is a unique experience
not often seen in AA film.

AGAINST: She is an adoptee.

6. Cecilia and Sara HyounScore!

FOR:
Sister team is cool. Two for the price of one. they also have an
extensive resume working in Hollywood as assistant editors, so they
have definitely paid their dues.

AGAINST: I never heard of the film. (Okay, this is an outdated statement. I actually know Sara now but I still haven’t seen the film).

7. Joseph KahnTorque

FOR:
Easily most commercially successful. He’s made some of the best music
videos in the business. And he has a really cool website.

AGAINST: Movie bombed. (Obviously, not enough shirtless Wil Yun Lee in the movie)

8. Michael KangThe Motel

FOR:
Film premiered at Sundance. Lots of accolades from the AA film fest
circuit as well as Humanitas Foundation, NYFA, Nat’l Endowment for the
Arts, Indie Spirit Awards, etc.

AGAINST: He’s running the survey and will probably cheat himself into the post by name-dropping too many awards.

9. So Yong Kim “In Between Days

FOR:
Also a Sundance darling. Very cool woman who sublet my apartment and
got her deposit returned in full because no damage was done to the
property.

AGAINST: She is on the very border of the requirements
for this list. She came here during high school, so she is 1.5 but just
barely.

10.   Sung H. Kim “Book of Rules

FOR: Played most
of the major Asian American Film Festivals. Looks like a DIY project.
Also, he does have easily the most Korean name in the group. *EDIT*
Best Narrative Feature (Jury Award) San Diego Asian Film Festival 2003.
(courtesy of stealinghome)

AGAINST: This isn’t really fair
because I have no info on this guy at all. I never heard of the film.
And there’s no info about him online. Hmmm.

11.   John Kwon aka Kwon Wootaak “Always Be Boyz

FOR: According to his bio, he licensed Thai Yoga instructor, he’s won Poetry Slams, went to Yale School of Drama and is bi-lingual.

AGAINST: I don’t have an against… Ivy League, Spiritual, Bi-Lingual, Poet?  OH MY GOD! I think we found THE ONE. John Kwon is THE Korean United States of American Narrative Feature Filmmaker. Hopefully, he’s not a jerk.


12.   Benson Lee “Miss Monday

FOR:
First feature by a Korean American to premiere at Sundance. The film
also got a Best Actress Award that year at the festival.

AGAINST:
No Asian characters in the movie. Also, the film was shot in England,
so it may not technically be an American film. Also, he is now a
hotshot documentarian with his new film Planet B-Boy, so we can’t be
sure of where his alliances lie.

12.   Chris Chan Lee “Yellow

FOR:
The daddy of Korean American film — him and Benson Lee’s “Miss Monday”
came out the same year, but this film directly deals with being Korean
American in L.A.

AGAINST: Mixed reactions to the film. Also
unsure of where his last name begins (Chan? Lee?) hence making
confusion for me in alphabetizing this list.

13.  Dennis LeeFireflies In The Garden

FOR: He is a supernova first-time filmmaker with his movie premiering at the Berlinale International Film Festival and having a cast that includes Julia Roberts, Ryon Reynolds, Willem Dafoe, Emily Watson and Carrie-Anne Moss.

AGAINST: Like many on this list, his film does not feature any Asians.


14. Grace Lee “American Zombie

FOR: She kicked ass with her documentary “The Grace Lee Project” and premiered her new film at Slamdance.

AGAINST:
First off she is a documentarian (see Benson Lee). In addition, she
might easily get lost with all the other Grace Lee’s out there.

15. Jieho LeeThe Air I Breathe

FOR: Huge all-star cast in his debut feature film which includes Forrest Whitaker, Andy Garcia and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

AGAINST: Cast Asians in tiny roles in the film including John Cho adn Kelly Hu.

16. John H. LeeThe Cut Runs Deep” 

 FOR: Probably the first hybrid Korean/American production (though I can’t confirm the production company right now). Film went on to win Best Film at the 1999 Pusan International Film Festival. He also discovered David McGuinness who would later go on to be a popular model and actor in Korea (Typhoon, Never Forever).

AGAINST: Since this film, John Lee aka Lee Jae-Han (이재한) has gone on to work exclusively in Korea.

17. Abraham Lim “Roads and Bridges

FOR: Worked with Robert Altman editing “Cookie’s Fortune.” Also a good friend of my producer Karin Chien.

AGAINST:
Never saw the movie. And his name sounds Chinese so made me have to do
extra work figuring out whether he actually was Korean. (I thought only
the Chinese named their kids after US Presidents).

18. Greg PakRobot Stories

FOR: The mack daddy of self-distribution. Proved that DIY is an option. Also won over 30 festival awards with this film.

AGAINST:
Some would argue that this is not a feature film, but rather a
collection of shorts. He’s also happa so he would need to find another
happa to help pick up the slack (see Mora Stephens)

19.   Sunmin Park “Too Pure

FOR: Is now officially the first female narrative feature filmmaker on the list (sorry, sisster’s Hyoun)

AGAINST: Can’t think of any…

20. Gene Rhee “Trouble With Romance

FOR: Made a great short about Asian men’s penis length featuring Roger Fan.

AGAINST: Haven’t seen his feature, so I don’t know if size actually does matter.

21. Phillip RheeBest of the Best 3: No Turning Back

(PROS/CONS courtesy of Chris Tashima)

FOR:
He worked his way up through the ranks, from martial arts competitor to
actor to producer to writer to director, with an awareness of the
uphill battle he faced as an Asian American actor (in a genre where
only White dudes were allowed to be the heroes).

AGAINST: Despite the titles, not sure either film approaches even best of the… anything.

22.  Mora Stephens “Conventioneers

FOR:
Together with Greg Pak, she could possibly be a good choice because
together they make one KUSoANFF. In terms of her film, she premiered
her film at the Tribeca Film Festival. Is also putting together her
next feature with Billy Bob Thornton and Yoonjin Kim.

AGAINST: Though the film is great. It had no Asian characters.

23. Samson Yi “Cats and Mice

FOR: He was an actor who was in “Gilmore Girls.”

AGAINST:
He shares the directing credit with a non-Korean. I also never heard of
this film… And he was an actor on “Gilmore Girls.”



These are other folks you should know about:

TOP TWO CANADIAN KOREAN FILMMAKERS

  1. Helen Lee “The Art of Woo
  2. Daniel Yoon “Post Concussion

 
HONORABLE MENTION:

  • Clifford Son “Helium” who shot this unfinished symphony a while ago but never released it.
  • Wonsuk Chin “Too Tired To Die” who came to the U.S. in his 20’s.
  • Another Korean ex-pat / Young Man Kang “Cupid’s Mistake”
  • Jimmy Lee “Close Call” (courtesy of eileenhchoi) who cast his daughter Annie Lee in the lead role as a drug addled wild child that has lots of sex… uh, Electra complex?
  • Gina Kim “Invisible Light” and “Never Forever” She also came here during her college years.
  • Daisil Kim-Gibson “Sa-I-Gu” does documentaries (good ones at that).
  • Christine Choy “Who Killed Vincent Chin” also does documentaries.
  • And I’ll mention my friend Johanna Lee who has been in
    pre-pre-production for her film “Jersey Seoul” but has not done any
    principal photography yet.
  • And on that note, I’ll have to include Grace Rowe who has been trying to get “American Seoul
    off the ground for a while. (Maybe they should think about not
    using the word Seoul like Soul in the title. It might be a curse.)
  • And I can’t leave out one of my best friends, Anna Kang who has been developing her project “The Lost Tribe of Long Island.”
  • And I’ll include Steven Hahn who co-directed the documentary “Party” and with whom I got to party in Rotterdam. Nothing like a coffee shop in Rotterdam and then zoning out to Dancehall to earn your way onto an honorable mention list in my book.

OTHER MENTIONABLES, OTHER PROFESSIONS:

  • Gina Kwon – Producer of The Motel and Me and You and Everyone We Know
  • David Koh – Head of distribution at Palm Pictures.
  • In-Ah Lee – Grace Lee’s producer.
  • Keli Lee – Executive Vice President, Casting at ABC Television.
  • Peter Kang – development executive at Fox Studios.
  • Charlotte Koh – (formerly Fox Searchlight development) now at Future Films
  • Roy Lee – the gatekeeper to all Hollywood remakes of Asian films.
  • Christina Kim – writer on LOST
  • Young Il Kim – winner of CAPE Award and who will probably be in the first list soon enough
  • Sung Kang – actor and producer. A rare combo.

43 thoughts on “

  1. i wish i could throw my own name in there, but alas, i cannot. does jessica yu get a shout out/honorable mention for her documentaries? in the realms of the unreal was amazing.

  2. Hi Mike,I’m Sangwoo, I’ve been reading your blog since a while ago and am looking forward to watching your film in the near future. (My last name is Kang, too!) As far as I know, Gi-seok Hwang, the cinematographer of FRIEND (2001) and WANEE AND JUNAH (2001), was raised in California and studied film at NYU. But I guess you’re looking for fillmmakers who work in the states. That, I don’t know.. I can’t think of any other filmmakers other than the ones you mentioned. (By the way, I don’t see the reason why 1st generations should not be included in the Korean American category. If you count them, you’ve got Jeong Chang-hwa, the first and only Korean director who made it to No. 1 in the U.S. box office with FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (197x) The film was made in Hong Kong though.)Have you had a chance to watch INVISIBLE LIGHT (2003)? I heard it has some Korean-American theme and was wonderfully made. Gina Kim, the director, came to the states in her twenties and currently teaches film at Harvard.This might not be relevant to this post, but there are a few well-known Zainichi(Korean-Japanese) directors in Japan. Yang-il Choi’s Blood and Bones (starring Beat Takeshi) has got numerous awards in Japan last year.

  3. Sangwoo,We are keeping the list to 1.5 gen and higher because I consider people like Wonsuk CHin or Gi-seok Hwang (whom I didn’t know about or Gina Kim either. Thanks. I’ll definitely look them up.), but to me they are more defined as international filmmakers. I guess also the reason being that both me and my friend James were sure we could come up with at least 30. Before James and I finished our films this year, the list would have been six! Barely breaking the halfway point. Eurieka,Is Jessica Yu Korean? I thought she was Chinese American.

  4. You may have already considered the following, but just in case:
    A recent issue of KoreAm magazine had an article about a woman director/producer of an animation/anime feature called “Sky Blue” who’s currently working on a movie with Amenabar (if I recall correctly).  I think her name was Sun-Min Park.  No idea if she’s 1, 1.5, hapa, expat, internationalist, zainichi, hispan-asian, liquefactionist, dadaist, or whatever.  IMDB doesn’t list her place of birth – maybe the KoreaAm article mentions it.
    A Google search came up with the following from a press release from the 2004 LA Korean International Film Festival:
    “Feature films by Korean American filmmakers will also be shown. Included is Sung H. Kim’s BOOK OF RULES, a story about the life of three Asian Pacific American roommates whose lives are starting to go separate ways. Also showing is Cecilia and Sara Hyoun’s SCORE!, which is a comedy about a girl who trades in boys for bowling.”
    The same search came up with the following from a blurb about the 2004 Maine International Film Festival:
    “According to the International Movie Database, MIFF will be presenting the US premiere of Invisible Light (2003). This Korean American film intriguingly focuses on the stories of two different women who are linked by a man. One is a young woman who has an illicit affair with a married man. The other is the wife who has had her own affair. Each faces emotional crises and must make key decisions for her life. There are plenty of issues to think about, such as responsibility, destiny, relationships, commitment, love, family, and morality. The situations are not particularly unique, as they are the staples of soap operas and other melodramas. What is intriguing and challenging about the film is that the focus is on the internal states within the women. Showing these interior feelings on the screen can be a major challenge for filmmakers. Many ambitious films have been sunk by failing to successfully negotiate the shoals of this challenge. How well does writer-director Gina Kim do this in her first dramatic feature film? Do the characters being culturally Korean make understanding their interior life even more of a challenge for non-Korean filmgoers?”
    And the same search revealed a Canadian-Korean director who had a movie at the Washington DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival in 2000:
    “Post ConcussionDirected and written by Daniel Yoon (82 min/16mm/color/1999 ) What does it take to change your life for the better? How about a severe blow to the head? In this semi-autobiographical story, Matthew Kang is a cutthroat consultant who is out of touch with his family and in a dead-end relationship. After he is hit by a car and suffers head trauma, he is forced to take stock of his life. ”
    Google also came up with an interview by IndieWire from 2002 with a producer where he refers to his production company (Forensic) working with a KA director:
    iW: What is Forensic up to now?
    Macaulay: The next film we are doing is called “Jersey Seoul.” It’s by Johanna Lee, a Korean-American filmmaker from NYU film school. The script is extremely well-executed and charming. It takes the whole epic wedding movie model and makes it funny but also moving and powerful. We raised about half the money when we were in Cannes. We hope to be shooting that next spring.”
    Good luck with the Wikipedia efforts!

  5. haaa gotta be American eh? What about us Canadians, we don’t count? :Pfrom the San Francisco International Asian Film Festival site:http://www.naatanet.org/festival/2002/html/press/korean.htmlThe Festival proudly presents the feature film directorial debut from Korean Canadian filmmaker Helen Lee (SALLY’S BEAUTY SPOT/SFIAAFF 1992, MY NIAGARA/SFIAAFF 1993, PREY/SFIAAFF 1996, and SUBROSA/SFIAAFF 2001. THE ART OF WOO is a delightful romantic comedy starring Sook-Yin Lee, Adam Beach, and Joel Keller. Equal parts Holly Golightly and Cinderella, Alessa Woo (Lee) is an ambitious young art curator living beyond her means. While hoping to attract Mister Moneybags, she inadvertently falls in love with Mister Right, a struggling artist.

  6. Pete,From Anime Overdose: “Sky Blue is Korean, not Japanese, a part of Korea’s advance in the animation world. ‘It is from Korea, not Japan,’ said Sun Min Park, an actor and one of the forces behind the Maxmedia-produced film.” Which means this is a Korean film, not Korean American.But points for finding Sung H. Kim, “Book of Rules”But it looks like Gina Kim’s “Invisible Light” falls under the ex-pat Korean category. From Ginakim.com: Gina KIM received her MFA from Cal Arts and a BFA from Seoul National University. Which makes me tend to believe she came here after she had already reached adulthood.Johanna Lee has yet to go into production on her film so I did not include her. And Daniel Yoon is already on the list (which answers gruegoo’s question — to me I mean North American Korean).On that note, I am glad Gruegoo pointed out Helen Lee. We needed atleast one woman on the list!

  7. Hey, you totally overlooked my nomination of “Cecilia and Sara Hyoun’s SCORE!, which is a comedy about a girl who trades in boys for bowling.”  I confirmed that they’re KA – see:  http://www.asiansocialnetwork.com/specials/ms_200405_score.html
    Also, in this interview (http://www.movieweb.com/news/news.php?id=6921) Sunmin Park refers to herself as Korean American.  And IMDB lists “Sky Blue” as a joint South Korean/US production.  While the animation was done in Korea, I don’t think that is determinative.  So, I re-nominate her.
    There, now I’ve re-nominated three KA women to join Helen Lee on the list.

  8. ‘Here is a depressing state of affairs…’Yo I don’t think its depressing at all dude. I remember ‘Reticence’ and ‘A Waiter Tomorrow’ from over a decade ago. Look at u guys now. You’re exactly on track. I see progress, and u guys are among the pioneers. props hyung keep blazin

  9. Oh yeah I would like to petition that u add Wonsuk 2 the list. His film was written and shot in New York, and it was written and acted in English. I mean, Korean American film is more about the films reflecting Korean American views, rather than creating a discussion about where the filmmaker was born yeah? I mean at least he casted an English speaking asian (albeit an accent) in the lead role, unlike some other filmmakers listed. My 2 cents.

  10. Dongseng Potto, If let Wonsuk in then we have to let them all in! This is a very specific list. I am more trying to point out the rarity of filmmaking as a career choice by those Koreans born and bred in America. Not that I think Wonsuk has had an easy time of it, but he comes from a different culture that can see him as being able to make any choice of profession. It is not about the content of the films. That is an entirely different issue.

  11. Give me a couple of years and hopefully I’ll get lucky enough to stand with such privileged company! 🙂 How about a list for top *ahem *student Korean American filmmakers?!!! Keep the hope alive, Mike. The third/fouth wave of Asian American/Korean American filmmakers are a’comin’!   

  12. You might want to keep an eye out for this one which is in preproduction:”K-Boyz” – Director Jean Shim-MinLos Angeles, 1992: Amid rising racial tensions, Korean American teenager Daniel is drawn into an Asian gang to save his family from bankruptcy. Writer Martina Nagel. Producers Eric Kim and Precy Betiong. Drama.

  13. I think Greg Pak, So Yong Kim, Mike Kang, and Grace Lee should be higher up on the list based on the critical success of their first films.  And I would also say Greg and Mike should be higher up in the sense of them really trying to push and educate the Korean-American filmmakers and giving back to the community.  And you found some really old, funny photos of Benson Lee and Abraham LINCOLN Lim.

  14. this list is gangster, for it is not only enlightening, but encouraging. thank u for the education. please be patient for korean american films 2.0. the next gen is coming up! and with that said, we humbly request your wise and gracious tutelege. tute on, sir!!! tute on!!

  15. Here are some others worth mentioning
    Producers:
    Peter Kang (Fox Studio), Charlotte Koh (Future Films), Roy Lee (Vertigo Ent.)
    Writers:
    Christina Kim (writer, Lost), Milton Liu (current Disney fellow)

  16. i hope this entry never stops updating and eventually gets so big and massive that it will require it’s own domain. and it can have the sweet, sweet acronym as its domain name. KUSoANFF.com. it’s not a nice right to it, wouldn’t you say?senor andrew and i shall infiltrate our way into the screening of West 32nd at piff, and we shall come equipped with soju strapped to our legs, in our pants, behind our neck like the desperado gun so we can run our fingers through our wild hair only to pull out an ice cold bottle of that crisp, refreshing taste: chuh eum chuh rum.i can’t wait! and would this mean you would grace your presence in the motherland?!!

  17. I thoroughly enjoy your passion, talent & vision. I know that we have met a few times and because of personal bullshit that I have caused please believe in our common goal of creating a voice in mainstream hollywood. I applaud you & your passion. All these works are important. Thank you for keeping the awareness and hope alive. Best always.

  18. I don’t think you should write off certain directors just because they don’t produce movies starring Korean-Americans or even Asians for that matter. If a director has interests in other areas and in different groups of people other than Koreans and Asians, he or she should be able to make movies on whatever he/she wants. Restricting the types of people one casts in films and limiting it to only Asian-themed storylines stifles creativity and artistic expression. All Asian -American directors should be honored because they’re making a name for themselves in the white-centered entertainment industry. 

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