Interview: Christine Yoo (2013) Wedding Palace

Oh, we want to get into a psychological session?” writer/director Christine Yoo asks with a laugh, regarding an inquiry into her decision to make the entertainment industry her career path. “From a young age I wanted to be an artist. Like every Korean kid, I was a piano player. And I did fine art as well. So when I got into movies it was like the ultimate art form of music and visuals. So it just kind of clicked with me.” Now, after years of film school, directing commercials, and writing for the animated television series Afro Samurai, Yoo is directing her first feature film, which she wrote years ago titled Wedding Palace. She took a break from promoting the film to speak to Working Author from her hotel room in New York via Skype.

“So the cool thing about being back in New York,” Yoo begins, “is that I left New York wanting to become a director in Hollywood, and now I’m back for the premiere at Times Square.” And while most Asians growing up in the United States are convinced by their parents to pursue a career in law or medicine, Yoo was fortunate to have parents who allowed her to explore other possibilities.

Ironically, Yoo took an interest in government work, and even studied Russian. “I…wanted to do the whole CIA spy thing.” After visiting Russia, she changed her mind. “Since I’m paranoid by nature I didn’t think the career would work out.” She laughs at the memory. She went to film school instead.

Wedding Palace is a comedy that Yoo wrote in 1999 and follows the life of Jason (Brian Tee) a Korean man who needs to get married before he turns 30 to avoid an ancient curse that will kill him if he fails to do so. Unfortunately for him, his bride-to-be (Joy Osmanski) leaves him at the altar, and leaves Jason and his family scrambling to find a new bride before Jason dies. Not having any luck in the United States, Jason travels to Seoul on business and meets a girl he really clicks with, Na Young (Hye-jeong Kang). But while they have enough chemistry to fall in love with each other from the other side of the planet, Na Young brings her own shortcomings that may be too much for Jason to overcome.

“The story just kind of dropped into my head one day, and I just started writing it,” Yoo says. “That’s usually how stories, at least for me, the artistic experience – that’s how they happen.” Yoo had always wanted to direct, and she believes that being a storyteller is the heart of being a director. “You have to think about, ‘What story do I have to tell as a person here on this planet? What makes me different? What’s my artistic expression? Or what’s the cool shit I want to try out?’” In writing Wedding Palace, Yoo drew from her fondness of the film Strictly Ballroom. “I love that movie, because it was so simple and because it was so funny! It just made me laugh.”

As a feature film with an entirely Asian cast that focuses on a lot of Asian humor and culture, Wedding Palace is a rarity in the American film industry. And while Yoo is not oblivious to this fact or to the political nature of art, she realizes that she is an artist first and foremost. “All I want to do is deliver a fun, entertainment piece,” she says. “My only goal with this movie is just to make people laugh and have a good time, because that’s what I enjoyed growing up.”

Yoo talks briefly about her childhood in Iowa, enjoying films of all kinds. “It’s a sad statement on America or a sad statement on Hollywood or the world that we live in that in 2013, having a movie with all Asian people is such a big fucking deal. So I don’t want this movie to be like, oh, I’m making the definitive statement on Korean-American families. This is just my interpretation. I view this movie as a fairytale more than anything else.”

And yet, Yoo can’t help but be sensitive to the fact that there isn’t a lot of product available to Asian moviegoers who want to see more representation in theatrical releases. “[The film industry] is a very tough business,” she says. “I think that [Asians] are kind of directed towards going toward the online space, and it’s OK to propagate the online space, but somehow the silver screen space is something we should pass over. That’s what people would tell me.” The concern is whether or not non-Asians can relate to this kind of film.

“Things get distilled down to a business,” Yoo says. “I realize that, but I do believe that people are better than what Hollywood would think them to be. And that people have the ability to relate and connect to people who don’t look like them, no matter their background. I do. I don’t think I’m that different from anybody else.”

Wedding Palace is already playing in theaters.