, is a Korean American Indie Filmmaker. I have known Wonsuk since the early Ifp Market days in the 1980s when he lived in New York and produced “Too Tired to Die
” which made some waves in the indie world at that time. He disappeared for several years and we recently reconnected in L.A.
Wonsuk: As you know, I started out in New York. I went to School of Visual Arts and studied film there. My first film was “Too Tired To Die
”, a dark comedy I wrote and directed in 1998. It starred Takeshi Kaneshiro
, Mira Sorvino
, Ben Gazzara
and Jeffrey Wright
. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival that year.
Then I did a feature length documentary “E-Dreams
” which chronicled the rise and fall of kozmo.com. After a special world premiere at Walter Reade
Theater, the film went on to screen at such festivals as Seattle, Hamptons, Jeonju (in Korea) and San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. The film also won the Best Documentary Award at Ammi, the aMagazine-sponsored Asian-American "Academy Awards” when “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
” won the Best Film.
Having grown up in Korea idolizing Hollywood films, I was one of the first Korean emigre filmmakers in the United States. When I first came here, many people were asking me if we even had a film industry in Korea. Truly, Korean films were virtually unknown outside Korea at the time. Of course, things have changed dramatically and Korea has produced some amazing films in the past 15 years. Some of the filmmakers like Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho are very influential and I am proud of it. But it is true many of those wonderful Korean films are still considered cult classics and have a limited audience. It has been my goal to make a film about Korea that can travel beyond the arthouse and foreign film fans.
In the mid 2000s, I tried to make a film called “Expats”, a heist comedy about American expats teaching English in Busan, Korea. Although we had a partial cast (Chris Kline, John Cho
and others have expressed interest), we couldn’t raise money and the project ultimately fell through. Many were saying I was a little ahead of the time. In the mid 2000s, Korean studios weren’t interested in making films for the global audience. Personally it was a devastating experience. You work on a project for several years and it doesn’t happen. Financially and spiritually it hurts you so much.
Wonsuk: In the past decade, I would travel back and forth between Korea and L.A., always trying to find the right project that has the best of Korean and American indie cinema.
Meanwhile, I ended up hosting a radio program in Korea to play soundtrack music. It was a great experience. I also appeared in a TV show regularly as a part time critic. I taught classes at Korea National University of the Arts.
I also tried producing some movies. I was involved in a Korean-Singapore-Chinese co-production Dance of the Dragon
and a Korean wild boar movie “Chaw” but neither was a pleasant experience for me. I guess, I missed being creative. My role was very limited in those projects.
Then, I saw “Blue Valentine
”. It was directed by a fellow Sundance alumni Derek Cianfrance
. He had “Brother Tied
” then. When I heard Derek had been working on the project for 12 years – that he never gave up his passion and dream for it -- it was a rude wake-up call for me. I’d been slacking off, placing blames on my producers for not being able to make my own movies. But Derek just persevered and made it happen for him.
I was truly humbled. I was inspired. I also sensed the time slipping away from me. I had to go back to making movies although uncertainty always awaited me.
In 2010, I started making some short films and music videos using iPhone and it got me excited about filmmaking again. They’re tiny projects created with a smartphone but I was happy to tell stories again. I got a little bit of notoriety because of them. In 2012, I shot “992,” a 13-minute comedy with an iPhone and it premiered at Macworld. The film received great reviews both in Korea and internationally and as a filmmaker, it boosted my confidence again. To be able to tell a story, even if it’s just short and online, I started believing again in my ability as a storyteller. Also, when you make a movie with a phone and raise the budget via crowdfunding, you begin to sense this is the brand new world.
Because of my previous works such as “E-Dreams
” which dealt with the early days of the dot com world and those iPhone generated shorts, I’ve been known as a tech-savvy filmmaker in my homeland. I also exec produced the iPhone film Park Chan-wook co-directed called “Night Fishing”. I’m also known to be an early adopter as I’m one of the first filmmakers in Korea to use social media. As an indie filmmaker, you have to know what tools are available to you since you have to be resourceful.
Ironically, my new project is far from technology. As you know, I’m working on a film called “Ape of Wrath”. This will be my first feature as a director since e-dreams which I made over 13 years ago. This one will be very special because I will get to shoot it in the country where I grew up.
“Ape of Wrath” is a comedy about an ambitious but questionably talentless American director who travels to Korea in 1976 to make a giant ape movie. Yes, the story takes place in 1976 and we’re going to make it as a mockumentary as if this was the making of from the era. Those who read the script have compared it to Ed Wood
This story was inspired by an actual giant ape movie shot in Korea in 1976. It is called “A*P*E” and is considered to be one of the worst movies ever made. But it has become a cult classic.
My story is completely fictional and the protagonist is a Edward Wood
, Jr.- like character named Federico Smith who has no resemblance to Paul Leder
’s father), the director of “A*P*E”.
In my story, Federico Smith is a USC graduate (went to school with George Lucas
) who made one forgettable horror film called “The Seventh Steal”. Now he gets to make his own King Kong
in Korea with a washed up Scottish actor John McGregor
playing the ape when his college roommate, Mr. Park, tells him to fuck copyrights and come to Korea to make the King Kong
rip-off. Federico thinks his giant ape movie will be up there with Merian C. Cooper
’s “King Kong
” but you know well how this film will turn out.
This will be my lifetime dream come true ever since, as a little kid, I saw the posters of “A*P*E” in the streets of Songtan, a small town near Osan Air Base. As a 8 year old kid, I thought “A*P*E” was the sequel to King Kong
and was proud Hollywood came to Korea to make a movie.
Many years later, now, I am preparing to make a film in Korea with an international cast. Luckily I have a great team behind us already. I hooked up with Paul Green
of Anonymous Content
who's the main producer of the project. Paul is the president and COO of Anonymous Content
and has executive produced “Laggies
” and will be executive producing “The Revenant
”. Earlier this year, “Avengers: Age of Ultron
” was filmed partially in Korea and soon “Sense8”, the new Netflix TV series from the Wachowski siblings will shoot scenes in Korea.
But “Ape of Wrath” will be the first coproduction with the U.S. to be shot entirely in Korea. It will be quite challenging though. We have a production system quite different from the ones in the States. Often, the shooting days are much longer in Korea. We can't afford to do that this time. Also it will be a daunting task to recreate 1970s Korea as Korea has changed so much.
But as a filmmaker, such challenges are always welcome. I’m not interested in making movies which seem familiar to you. The story of a hopeless dreamer may be familiar to you but such a story taking place in 1976 Korea will seem unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
If everything goes well, we will go into production next March. In the coming weeks, we hope to start casting the film.
You can watch Wonsuk Chin
short film "992" below.