Capturing K-Town BY JOSH ROSENBLATT
he “10 Under 10” film festival in Austin puts the lie to the idea that movies have to be long and expensive to be worthwhile. Produced by Ellen Spiro, a documentary filmmaker and University of Texas associate professor, “10 Under 10” is a festival of restrictions (a dirty word in Hollywood)—all films under 10 minutes long, all made for less than $10. The festival offers an opportunity for young auteurs to tell their stories without losing their focus or ruining their credit. MFA candidate SunHee Cho took full advantage of the “10 Under 10” guidelines this year, stretching her meager minutes and dollars to explore the lives of Korean women residing in the United States, a topic that lies close to her heart. Her documentary, K-Town, Texas, turns the camera on the city of Killeen, home to both the country’s largest active military post, Fort Hood, and one of the most significant Korean populations in the state. In this most American of places, surrounded by a culture swimming in military pride and national self-regard, Cho chanced upon Pong Brown and Shin Morris—two of thousands of Korean women living in Killeen who left behind everything they knew to come to this new world with their American husbands. She then set about putting down on tape their impressions of life in Central Texas, impressions that are inextricably tangled up in issues of family, language, and self-determination. Passing notes over e-mail, SunHee (writing from her home in Seoul, Korea) and I spoke of the difficulties facing these women as they strive to strike a balance between two disparate cultures and about the various methods she employed to do justice to their stories within the confines of the “10 Under 10” format. Texas Observer: How did you find yourself in Central Texas? SunHee Cho: I was going to Dong-guk University in Seoul, majoring in creative writing, [and I was] looking for a place where I could improve my English in a short period of time: basically, a place where I couldn’t find Koreans so that I could only speak English to survive. I started with attending an ESL program in Kingsville, Texas. There are a lot of places where I could study film, but I was inclined to come to Austin for many different reasons. I knew about the growing film community in Austin and the prestigious film program at UT. UT also was the only school that had a reasonable tuition rate (a big factor for an international student). Austin is a very unique place both culturally and geographically, which is inevitably attractive to those who want to make documentaries. TO: Were you familiar with Killeen before making the movie? SC: A couple of friends that I have met in Austin are interracial kids from Killeen whose moms are Korean and dads are American soldiers. When I visited Killeen with one of my friends, I was fascinated by the unusual setting of the town and thought to myself how odd it is for those Korean women to be in that environment. I immediately was drawn to the subject since I understood what it was like to live in a strange place, being an international student myself. When a chance to make a short documentary for [UT professor] Paul Stekler’s Directing a Documentary class, I just drove up there to Killeen, found a Korean restaurant, and (luckily) met a Korean woman, Shin, whose American husband is still in Iraq. Through her, I found out about this Korean church, where I saw more than a hundred interracial couples. That’s where I met Pong. TO: Is this film similar in style to the other movies you’ve made or that you’re interested in making, or did the restrictions of the “10 Under 10” format force you to change your approach? SC: The “10 Under 10” format itself didn’t really affect my approach to making this documentary until I had to cut it from 17 minutes down to 10. As far as the subject matter, yes, this is something I want to explore more: Korean women in strange places, women from the East who live on the opposite side of the world. As far as the style, this was something totally new that I had never tried before. The first documentary short I directed, This Road (2004)—which also was a part of last year’s “10 Under 10”— I wanted to be poetic, a story driven by V.O. (voice over) and images that represented the states of the subject’s mind. But this time around, for K-Town, Texas, I knew my subjects would open themselves more intimately when I approached them just as a Korean woman who’s interested in hearing their stories. So, my becoming a part of the documentary, having my own voice heard, was a very conscious decision, which ended up making K-Town distinctive from This Road. TO: Do you see the imprint of your artistic influences on this movie? SC: I personally like cinema verité style. You are not to intrude on someone’s life, but to blend into the circumstances that you are surrounded by. The camera is an extension of your eyes; what you choose to see is mainly drawn by your pure curiosity, just like when you are surrounded by new people and new environments. I don’t like framing things first and waiting for those things to come into my frame because that’s not how we usually see things. I observe things and follow them as I follow my own curiosity. It affected how I shot and edited K-Town. In editing this piece, I didn’t have to create scenes by putting shots together or cutting them around because of the way I shot the whole thing. Most of the time, scenes were already there, so it was more a matter of deciding what I was going to include rather than making decisions on what I had to exclude. TO: One of my favorite scenes from the film takes place in the Korean church, where the pews are filled with couples. All of the men are wearing headphones in order to hear the translation of the pastor’s sermon. I was surprised to see how few of them understood Korean. SC: It’s very strange to me how the wives are always the ones who learn their husbands’ language. I thought about why it is. Does it have to do with some kind of power structure behind male/female or Caucasian/Asian relationships? I am not sure. One thing I know for sure from my own observation is that this kind of marriage has demanded more sacrifices from the wives than from the husbands. TO: Shin says at one point that it’s too difficult to teach her children Korean in an American home. Do you think that’s the only reason she hasn’t, or did you sense a desire on her part to make sure her children were fully assimilated Americans? SC: No, I didn’t think she wanted her children to be assimilated American kids. Maybe the opposite, I would say. She said there was a stage when she tried so hard to teach them Korean, but at some point she just kind of gave up because she felt that her children weren’t motivated to learn their mom’s language when the rest of the world spoke to them in English. They go to a school that is inside Ft. Hood. You don’t see many interracial children who fluently speak both languages there. I have closely [watched] a lot of children at the church where Pong goes. It’s very interesting to see how they still are comparatively open to (or even like) Korean food, TV shows, or other sorts of Korean pop culture when they are not very familiar with [the language], usually the first thing to learn when you try to understand one’s culture. TO: Both Pong and Shin stress the significance of having a job, as if their survival as foreign wives were contingent upon their independence. SC: The best way, according to Pong and Shin, for them to adjust themselves to the new environment was to go out and find things they could do without their husbands’ help: socializing themselves, making friends whom they could talk to and learn English from, and earning money, not just to support the family but also to do something productive other than staying home and watching Korean TV shows on tapes. When they start having confidence that they can live in the United States without anyone’s help it’s like a turning point where they finally are proud of themselves for their “achievements.” That’s when a strange place becomes home. Through their story, I wanted to bring to the surface what it means to be away from everything you love, to have married a man who doesn’t speak your language, to have a child who doesn’t always fully understand your culture, to be isolated from the world around you, and to find inner strength and conviction to overcome these challenges and finally be on your own. TO: What’s next for you? SC: My next big project, which I think will be my thesis project (for my MFA degree), is a feature-length documentary on a Korean nun named Mal-Ji Jung who has lived in Chalco [an extremely poor area outside Mexico City] for 20 years, serving underprivileged Mexican kids. This project is like an extension lead or a conclusion to the documentaries that I have made. Like I mentioned, I want to explore stories of Korean women in strange places and how the kind of extraordinary circumstances that these women have faced shape their character. I want to stay in the United States for a couple of years, working. But eventually I’ll go back to Korea and direct TV dramas or documentaries made for TV. TV dramas in Asia are huge. Right now, it is Korean TV dramas that are dominating Asian pop culture. There’s even a word to describe this phenomenon: “The Korean Wave.” This is a dream for a filmmaker who wishes to reach as many viewers as possible. If there’s any chance for me later on, making fiction films in Korea would be nice, too. I have submitted K-Town to [an international documentary festival] and the Seoul Women’s Film Festival; I’m waiting to hear from them. Also, I’ve talked to a nationwide TV network. If everything works out, there’s a possibility that we will work together to make this project longer to televise nationwide. Josh Rosenblatt is an arts writer based in Austin.