With the ease that award-winning filmmaker Christine Yoo talks about her love of Kalapana’s music and minute chicken with cake noodles at Aina Haina Chop Suey, you’d think she’s a local girl. Actually, this Korean-American writer and director speaks with a hint of a Southern drawl from growing up in Tennessee and now resides in Los Angeles. But she recently stopped by Hawaii to promote her film, “Wedding Palace,” and revealed her close ties to the islands and how difficult it was to find distribution for her passion project.
Yoo’s grandparents emigrated to Hawaii in 1908, soon after the very first wave of Korean immigrants. Her grandfather worked as a luna on the plantations and her grandmother helped found the current Korean Christian Church. Because of these roots, Yoo visits often to see family and always makes her rounds to Zippy’s for saimin; Like Like Drive Inn for Portuguese sausage, eggs and rice; and even gets a little fancy by sipping lilikoi daiquiris seaside at the Halekulani. Since her mother recently moved back to Hawaii, Yoo says she’ll be visiting even more frequently.
A Passion project with an amazing cast
“Wedding Palace,” dubbed the Korean-American “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” is a passion project for Yoo, who came up with the movie’s idea back in 1999. Loosely basing the characters on her own family members, but just a bit zanier, she was able to put together a stellar Korean-American cast for her film about a man who must marry before he turns 30 in order to avoid an ancient family curse. The well-known cast includes Brian Tee (“The Wolverine,” “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift”), Bobby Lee (“MadTV”), Margaret Cho and Steve Park (“In Living Color”). When asked how she was able to gather many of today’s who’s who in the Korean-American entertainment community, Yoo says that she basically just asked and most she approached agreed to do the film. But she wanted someone from Korea to play the role of Na Young, the beautiful Korean bride-to-be, so she cast Kang Hye Jung, star of international hits “Oldboy” and “Welcome to Dongmakgol.” Kang couldn’t speak any English prior to doing the film, so she initially learned her lines phonetically. But during filming, she met and married her husband Tablo, a Korean rapper from the group Epik High, who is fluent in three languages, including English. By the end of filming, she was freely improvising lines in English.
While it seems like a no-brainer to cast comic Bobby Lee in the role of the best friend, Yoo reveals that the movie studios originally wanted her to cast a white person in that role to appeal to a broader audience. And therein was the dilemma facing Yoo after completion of the film. Hollywood had not been kind to films featuring Asian-American casts with only “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993 and “Better Luck Tomorrow” in 2002 making waves. Why was it that Asian-Americans could only see their films receiving notice about once a decade? Yoo says that distributors told her they didn’t know how to market the film. The Asian-American population is too small to focus on, and they feared that the film wouldn’t appeal to wider audiences. So Yoo took it upon herself to finance and distribute the film theatrically. With the film’s universal theme of marriage, as well as her knowledge of being both Asian and American, she thought that she’d be the best person to properly market the film.
So what’s next?
After promoting “Wedding Palace” and then a quick break, Yoo will next be working on completing her documentary called “K-Pop Brings Peace to the Middle East.” The film will portray how teenage Arabs and Jews are forming friendships in the Middle East through their mutual love of K-pop music. Who knew that over a century of war could potentially be resolved by Big Bang and Girls Generation?
“Wedding Palace” opens this Friday at the Consolidated Theatres Pearlridge 16 and Regal Theatres Dole Cannery 18. If ticket sales are strong, the film will receive an extended run as well as potentially additional screens at Consolidated Theatres Ward 16.