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COMMUNITY NEWS: MID-CITY

KOREATOWN : Artists Battle Asian Stereotypes in Films

August 08, 1993|JAKE DOHERTY

Amid criticism that Hollywood draws stereotypical portrayals of Asian-Americans and other minorities, two local Korean-American filmmakers are offering fresh, realistic, perspectives of life in their communities.

Kyung-Ja Lee and Diana Lee (no relation) are working on separate projects that explore the Korean-American immigrant experience in Los Angeles.

"The Korean immigrant culture has its own texture and has emerged as something new," a hybrid of disparate cultural influences that converge in Koreatown, said Kyung-Ja Lee, describing the setting of "Koreatown Blues," a screenplay nearing completion.

The American Film Institute recently awarded $20,000 to Kyung-Ja Lee, a 1989 AFI graduate and former psychiatric social worker, to support the project, which has undergone major revisions since last year's riots.

The story revolves around a young Korean-American woman who works in a Koreatown auto body shop for a Korean owner and his Latino employees, a situation that draws heavily on Lee's own experiences.

Kyung-Ja Lee said her film will explore the complex interaction between Koreans and Latinos in the body shop who "share kimchi and jalapeno peppers in the lounge" and depend on each other for their livelihood, but who frequently misunderstand one another.

Yet, at the heart of "Koreatown Blues" is a sense of hope, Lee said. "Not the hokey kind of hope--I'm too cynical for that--but in the sense that the effort to understand changes the context of relationships."

In addition to a number of local and national grants, Lee's project has received support from the National Asian American Telecommunications Assn. and the National Latino Communications Center.

Diana Lee's current work will be part of a documentary, "South Central Los Angeles: Inside Voices," scheduled to be finished by the end of the year.

The project, produced by independent filmmaker Maxi Cohen, features a team of African-American, Asian-American, Latino and Anglo videographers who will chronicle the lives of people living or working in the inner city.

After spending much of her childhood in Taiwan, Diana Lee made two long visits to South Korea, most recently as a Fulbright scholar in 1991. Based on her research in South Korea, Lee completed two films, one on shamanism, the other on the lives of Korean women who work in clubs near U.S. military bases.

"In both cases, these are women on the fringes of society who manage to persevere with humor despite the hardships," Lee said.

For the new documentary, Lee spent time with a Korean couple accused of burning their store during the riots, attorney Angela Oh, and members of the Korean Young Adult Team, who formed a volunteer security patrol in Koreatown.

Lee, who studied at USC's Center for Visual Anthropology, said she tackles difficult topics "to make people aware of problems and hopefully bring about change."

Both filmmakers said they hope Korean-Americans can benefit from the self-examination prompted by their films.

Said Kyung-Ja Lee: "Koreatown is like a Grand Central Station for all ethnic groups, but it can be an incredible trap for Koreans if they isolate themselves from others."

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