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Melissa Kyu-Jung Lee: ending with questions

Juanita Kwok

Melissa Kyu-Jung Lee & friends, A True Story About Love Melissa Kyu-Jung Lee & friends, A True Story About Love
Melissa Kyu-Jung Lee only has one VHS copy left of Soshin: In your Dreams, the documentary she made about her parents coming to terms with her decision to become a filmmaker. Her parents have given all the rest to friends. From a strained relationship, leaving home at the age of 15, she has done them proud, graduating from the Australian Film Television and Radio School with the Film Australia AFTRS Graduation Award and Community Relations Commissions Award for her documentary A True Story about Love. Her films are winning prizes in Australia and abroad, and she is regarded as one of the bright new talents of Australian filmmaking.

Her 3 films produced while at AFTRS have a common theme of peeling back layers to seek the truth. In Secret Women’s Business, women shed the accessories that construct their public identities when they bathe naked together at the Korean bathhouse in Sydney.

Lee’s most intriguing documentary yet is A True Story about Love. Ditching the planned project about Korean-American documentary filmmakers, she instead returned from the United States with material which ended up as a documentary on her personal relationships. She did not dispense entirely with her interviews; their comments throughout the documentary provide critical perspectives on her relationships and the ethics of her filmmaking. While Lee is at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival meeting filmmakers celebrating an Asian-American identity, in her personal relationships she is discovering the complexities within that community. She has an affair with one of her subjects, Richard Kim, a Korean-American documentary filmmaker, then later becomes involved with his friend, the Japanese-American actor Mark Hayashi. She is torn between her sense of “coming home” in being with a Korean lover, and her mixed feelings about falling in love with a Japanese man, a relationship she knows her parents would disapprove of.

You work through your relationship with your parents in Soshin: In Your Dreams, and come to an understanding, but the way they view you is obviously still an issue.

Oh, it’s ridiculous, because I’m 30 and I still can’t tell my parents a lot of things because I’m scared I’m going to get into trouble.

Your parents are obviously proud of what you do.

Yeah, they are very proud, but at the same time that puts this new pressure on me to be what they want me to be, a successful, ethical and politically correct filmmaker.

A True Story about Love brings to mind comparisons with the ethical dilemmas in documentary filmmaking which were raised by Dennis O’Rourke’s Good Woman of Bangkok.

Our conversation revealed even more complex layers when Lee told me that 90 percent of her documentary was re-enacted.

I didn’t decide to make the film until I actually left San Francisco. I was still having a relationship with Mark long distance but I was in New York to interview some other filmmakers for my original idea and then I thought, oh, I can’t do this, this is so fucking boring, I’m just sick of talking about identity with filmmakers, and I thought what had been happening in my personal life with Mark and Richard said far more about identity in a really personal way.

I was in New York and I thought, okay, I’m going to forget about this project that I’m doing, I’m going to make a film about what happened to me in San Francisco. So then I rang Richard and Mark and asked them if they’d help me make the film and then I wrote a script and Mark was actually my script editor. I’d write the script, email it to him, he’d give me his comments, I’d email another draft etc etc. Then I flew back to San Francisco and shot all that stuff that you see.

In the documentary you’re seeing things as they evolve, but that’s not exactly the case; in a sense you’re replaying what happened and looking back at it from a different position.

It’s a different level of truth I suppose. All that stuff happened but I wasn’t shooting it as I was going along, it’s just presented that way and so the bit where I’m in bed with Richard, I mean how would I shoot that, and so Mark shot it.

You must have known more than 2 people in San Francisco. Did that make it more confrontational?

Well I did know other people in San Francisco but Mark wanted to learn more about cameras, so he and I were the production team.

It was hell. I had a really bad time. It was just the worst experience I’ve ever had, to the point where I cried every day. I had abandoned that (original) project so I was coming back with a completely different film and I didn’t know whether that was acceptable or not and I was really in love with Mark and the filmmaking process was putting enormous strain on our relationship.

My impression was the opposite because of the comment you make about questioning your intentions in getting together with Mark.

Well that was also in my mind. I think that in the film I paint myself, my character, as more of an exploiter, I play up that side of it. But there was this whole other side of it, I was feeling really vulnerable, I was really in love with Mark and didn’t want to lose him but also had the pressure of coming back with the film.

In the shoot were you mainly re-enacting things that happened or shooting what was happening then and there?

It was a kind of combination. We were shooting to a script and we’d say, okay, we’re going to do that scene where you got jealous about Richard and you got really angry and told me to leave. And we would start that and just improvise and sometimes it would take us on another tangent.

What about the responses to A True Story about Love?

Richard called me one day and he just joked about it. Mark thought it could have gone deeper into the issues. My external supervisor at AFTRS showed it to a friend of hers who doesn’t know me and her response was “What a bitch.” I can understand that people might have that reaction, but in the end I think once [a] film is made, it has a life of its own. One of the most exciting things about A True Story about Love for me is that people hopefully end up with questions at the end of the film rather than answers.

Going full circle back to your parents—how do they feel about A True Story about Love?

They haven’t seen it yet.

When are you going to show them?

I’ve been putting it off, I’m still trying to find the right time to sit and show it to them. I mean they won’t be happy about it. My sister saw it at last year’s WOW, [the film festival organised by Women in Film and Television] and she said, “I think it’s a good idea you don’t show Mum and Dad” (Laughs).

A True Story about Love, director/writer/producer Melissa Kyu-Jung Lee, Australian Film Television and Radio School, featured in competition at Flickerfest short film festival. It has won a range of awards including the Zonta Emerging Filmmaking Award at WOW (see Virginia Baxter's review), and First Prize (Ogawa Shinsuke Prize) in the New Asian Currents section at Yamagata Documentary Film Festival in Japan.

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 15

© Juanita Kwok; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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