“Wedding Palace” Director Chris Yoo

by journojames on February 17, 2012

Originally published May 2, 2011

Scene from "Wedding Palace," Photo courtesy of the Tattler

LOS ANGELES – The swanky 600-seat theater at the Director’s Guild of America in Los Angeles was sold out Friday night. The crowd of mostly Asian-Americans filled the plush red seats. They were there to see the new Korean-American romantic comedy “Wedding Palace.” The movie was part of the 2011 L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival’s second night of programming. The director of the movie, Christine Yoo, was there greeting viewers and looked delighted by the large turn out.

For Yoo, who was also the producer and co-writer of “Wedding Palace,” this was a special night. It was a culmination of her feature film directorial debut.

The petite 43-year-old Korean-American filmmaker addressed the audience before the screening. She was dressed in a teal-colored modern Korean hanbok skirt, fashionable dark blouse and wore a flower halo. She appeared excited and overwhelmed. She nervously looked out towards the audience and graciously thanked everyone who played a part in making the movie.

“This took a long time and I’ll just leave it at that,” said Yoo. “But in the end, it’s the movie we wanted to make.”

Yoo’s “long time” description is an understatement. It took her 11 long years of hard work and perseverance to finish her movie. And by doing so, she made some noteworthy accomplishments. Yoo is now the first Korean-American woman to complete an independent feature film. She is now also the first filmmaker to organize a co-production that integrated both U.S. and South Korean production systems, setting up an important potential model for future independent filmmakers.

All of this began with a simple idea for a movie that came pretty easily to Yoo in 1997, a couple years after receiving her undergraduate degree in film and TV production from the University of Southern California.

“It’s a very silly idea but for some reason it stuck,” she said during an interview a couple weeks prior to the DGA screening. She was relaxed, enjoying an iced coffee while sitting outside the CGV movie theater complex in L.A.’s Koreatown. She said the idea sprung from real events she had heard about from family friends.

Director Chris Yoo, Photo courtesy of the Asian Pacific Film Festival

Yoo’s movie is about a 29-year-old Korean-American advertising executive in Los Angeles. He is being pressured by his family to marry before he turns 30 years old to avoid an ancient family curse that threatens his very life. When he does finally find a nice girl during a business trip to Korea, complications arise after his Korean bride-to-be arrives in L.A.

She co-wrote the script, originally entitled “Shortcomings,” relatively quickly in six weeks with her former USC screenwriting instructor Robert Gardner, who appreciated the humor in the story.

“I liked the material. It was funny,” said Gardner, who began teaching at the school in 1995. “There was something there and I understood it.”

Yoo was so happy with how the script turned out she wanted it for her feature directorial debut.

“For this film, my whole thing was, it had to be done for super cheap,” said Yoo. She calculated a tentative budget and “super cheap” turned out to be somewhere between $1-$3 million.

Yoo got on a plane and went to Seoul with “Shortcomings” translated into Korean. Her short coming-of-age student film “Yellow Belle” was well-received in S. Korea at the Pusan Film Festival in the prior year. She said she had made a number of promising contacts there who were interested in her future projects. She went there with undeniable pitches in mind and high hopes.

Director Yoo speaks on the film festival circuit, Photo courtesy of Eric Jones

“I got flat-out rejected by everybody,” she said. “These people were like ‘Who is this crazy girl?’ and nobody got the script. They all thought it was a drama. It was really discouraging.”

Yoo’s discouragement deepened over the next year as she failed to get her movie launched in S. Korea. She returned home to L.A. at the end of that year broke and heartbroken.

The depressed filmmaker needed money just to pay the bills, so she gave up on producing her screenplay. Instead, she used it as a writing sample to look for jobs. By the end of 2001, she got her first professional writing gig.

“People always loved that script,” she said. “Every single writing job and representation I got was off that script.”

She said she didn’t particularly enjoy writing but worked productively as a freelancer until 2007. That’s when she had a terribly unhappy and unproductive writing experience on an animated series about the Carthaginian military commander Hannibal that was developed for Vin Diesel. Yoo said she had had enough. She didn’t want to write anymore; she wanted to direct. That’s when she decided to go back to her script and make it on her own terms.

The first place Yoo turned to for help was the Korean-American community in L.A. She contacted Johng So Hong, executive director of the Korean Youth and Community Center. His organization had helped Yoo before with rehearsal space when she made her student short.

Hong listened to her pitch and suggested looking into corporate sponsorship for her film. He then introduced her to several key people in the Korean-American community who could possibly offer financing. She said Hong deserved a lot of credit for helping save the movie.

“It was just good timing,” said Hong. “She needed some support and, at the time, we were looking for something that would give Koreatown a more positive image. Her good-hearted story gave a positive portrayal of an Asian family.”

Yoo at the Philadelphia Asian-American Film Festival, Photo courtesy of Eric Jones

For the next year, Yoo developed a business plan with the help of young Korean-American entrepreneurs. She then went door-to-door to Koreatown businesses asking for donations of any kind. She said she felt like a traveling salesman but her hard work eventually paid off. She secured sponsorships from Hyundai Motor America, the Korean Tourism office, Korean Air, and the Jinro/Hite alcohol beverage company. Soon, other companies like LG Mobile followed.

While all of this happened, she also tried to cast her actors and collect her crew, which involved several trips to S. Korea.

Yoo cast Brian Tee from “The Fast & The Furious 3: Tokyo Drift” as the marriage-challenged advertising executive in the story. South Korean actress Kang Hye-jung, who received acclaim from film critics for her work in the 2003 Korean film “Old Boy,” was cast as Tee’s love interest; this movie would be her English language debut. And as far as supporting actors, Yoo went with an all Asian-American cast, most notably, Korean-American comedians Margaret Cho and Bobby Lee from “MADtv,” and Stephen Park, who has been in “Fargo” and “A Serious Man,” among other movies.

Yoo soon finished hiring the rest of the cast and crew. She then reworked and updated her script with the new title “Wedding Palace.” Finally, she set the first week of November in 2008 as the movie’s production start date.

A quick traditional Korean blessing ceremony called go-sah was observed by cast and crew members in the production office in Koreatown to bring good luck to the set.

It didn’t work.

Yoo was quickly called into the line producer’s office and was quietly informed that her principal Korean financier had just abandoned the movie. She was told the financier wouldn’t have the money until the following spring. Yoo said that she knew this was at a time when the global financial crisis was perhaps at its height, but she didn’t care about that. She was in shock.

“All I could keep thinking about was how am I going to tell Steve Park that he has to go home to New York?” said Yoo. ”That’s the only thing I kept thinking about.”

Brian Tee in "Wedding Palace," Photo courtesy of iamkoream

Yoo’s long-time creative collaborator and boyfriend Derek Draper quickly took her aside and told her that she needed to contact everybody she knew right then and ask for immediate donations. She ended up raising close to $400,000 after two hours of begging and pleading on the phone with family and friends. Yoo’s movie began shooting the next morning.

The entire production, first in L.A. and then in Seoul, was on this unpredictable ‘pay-as-you-go’ arrangement. So, while Yoo was directing the movie, she was also desperately raising money and constantly chasing it down so that they would be able to make payroll every week.

“It was like hell for me,” said Yoo with a laugh. “It was really, really fucking terrible.”

At least she was able to laugh about it now. And if it was terrible for her, she never let it show.

“I didn’t know about any of it,” said actor Steve Park. “I didn’t notice anything. It wasn’t like she came on the set and it was like chaos or anything. I only heard about it later.”

The production ended up running out of money a couple times which forced the movie into hiatus and dragged the production out for an entire year. Yoo said the financial situation was messy, but creatively there were very few problems. She said she savored every moment of her directing experience. Still, she said the lengthy schedule was taking its toll on her and she was looking forward to the end of the shoot.

The last day of production was in Seoul on a bitterly cold November night in 2009. She said she was so ecstatic on that last day of production that she was jumping up and down with giddiness. She said it was caught on video and can be seen on YouTube.

Yoo said the movie’s final budget was $1 million.

“Wedding Palace” may be completed but Yoo said she still had a lot more work to do. She will soon be taking the movie to various festivals around the country, including the Silk Screen Asian Film Festival in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania next weekend. She said she’s also bypassing traditional distributors and working on her own marketing and distribution plan for the movie.

“The distribution systems in place are not set up to make this movie a success,” said Yoo.

Director Yoo at the L.A. premiere, Photo courtesy of JournoJames

Yoo also said she’s thinking about writing a book about her experience, specifically on how best to effectively use both the U.S. and S. Korean movie production systems together. She said she had to find out the hard way about the cultural and practical differences in filmmaking between the two countries. She said future independent filmmakers could learn and benefit from her mistakes.

At the reception in Koreatown after the DGA screening on Friday night, Yoo was receiving waves of congratulatory hugs everywhere she turned.

She looked overwhelmed by it all. But on this night, for a change, she looked like she welcomed it.

Previous post:

Next post: