Asian A.V. Club newsletter #1
Director Yoko Okumura talks to us about her Blumhouse feature debut 'Unseen'. We get some insider insights to the Netflix K-revenge drama 'The Glory Part 2'. Plus your March viewing checklist!
Asian A.V. Club: We love the fact that your whole ensemble, your background, your clothing, your hair, is green! Is this how you present yourself to the world as your brand?
Yoko Okumura: It’s a lifestyle (laughs), it’s definitely a lifestyle. It comes from a sincere love of a color. Like my iPod case, my hair gel, whatever I can get, if it comes in this color, I’m going to buy it. I have tried every single color and this is the one. I’ve had this almost ten years and this has become my natural hair color and it’s also helped to make me memorable.
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Asian A.V. Club: What is your origin story? We read that you learned filmmaking in high school.
Yoko Okumura: Yeah, I was just always obsessed with video cameras and 35mm point and shoot cameras. I just loved cameras. I was the kid who would bring a video camera to school plays and filmed behind the scenes. I just loved that process and it was a part of my life at a super young age, probably at ten years old.
So that just grew into any opportunity I had to do more media. What was amazing is that in Minneapolis, where I grew up, they actually had a government funded arts high school. So for the last two years of high school, they let students from all over Minnesota come in, have a specific arts focus for their entire two last years. So I did Media Arts and I learned how to edit with Final Cut there. And so it’s just been something I love doing my whole entire life.
Asian A.V. Club: Was there a film that kind of was your trigger to this world called ‘cinema’?
Yoko Okumura: What was kind of foundational to me was emotional authentic stuff like, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. That film in particular was where I thought, oh my goodness, look at what you can do with creative filmmaking to tell an emotional story. That was the first one for sure.
Asian A.V. Club: You also worked in documentaries and also behind the scenes stuff, when you jumped into narrative filmmaking, what did those previous skill sets help you as a director?
Yoko Okumura: I mean documentaries, especially the ones that I directed independently, they really just get you ready for anything. They get you ready for being able to capture golden moments on the whim, and I think that’s a really big asset even for narrative filmmaking. On a film, you plan everything out to a T as much as you can. But then on set, reality happens and you never know what’s going to go wrong. I think adaptability is incredibly important for a narrative director. So I think doing documentaries and really having to make a story as you go, was actually a really good training ground for me being able to be on my toes and problem solve on set.
Asian A.V. Club: How did you connect with the horror genre as a director?
Yoko Okumura: When I went to grad school at AFI (American Film Institute) for directing, I really was practicing more of that emotionally grounded storytelling. It wasn’t until I directed and wrote an episode for the Sam Raimi show Fifty Shades of Fright, that I understood what horror can do. I made it an Asian-American mother-daughter story at the core, but then put in a fantastical scenario of a haunted twine ball that eats children (laughs). I realized it’s so fun to tell a grounded emotional story that’s authentic to me but then put it on steroids and make it into a huge fantastical entertaining experience. So I saw the potential of trojan horse filmmaking of escalating horror, but then inside there’s this authentic nugget of reality.
Asian A.V. Club: In your new film Unseen, were the characters written as Asian or was that something that you brought to the table?
Yoko Okumura: Originally the characters had no ethnicity mentioned, so they were women neutrally. (laughs) There was an infrastructure of a story here that I really saw myself infusing my style and authentic perspective onto. To me, the friendship of two women fighting back against an abuser, was the core of this movie. Salvatore (Cardoni) and Brian (Rawlins – screenwriters) had already established this amazing and fun tense rollercoaster of a story plot wise. But I also saw that they did a really good job of centering these two people who had an unlikely friendship story.
And then the two leads being Asian-American definitely came with me. I think in the pitching process, especially Emily (Midori Francis) being in the medical field, I wanted her to be Asian-American, in order to represent the abundance of Asian-Americans in the medical field. And then with Sam, we saw all kinds of people, from different background ethnicities, but Jolene Purdy was really it for me. I actually didn’t know that she was Japanese-American until I was in this process and it was like this amazing coincidence that the three of us got to be this trifecta together.
Asian A.V. Club: Was there a shorthand for you and your two leads because of your similar backgrounds?
Yoko Okumura: There was an immediacy in developing a friendship when we were together on set with our shared experiences and shared backgrounds. In the film, there is a conversation about how Emily had some racism thrown against her when she was young. I think specifically with a moment like that, it was developed with Midori together.
Asian A.V. Club: There is something special about having a thriller with two female Asian leads.
Yoko Okumura: There are certain films that talk about our actual background and our actual heritage and it tells that story beautifully. But I also love the movies with characters that could be anybody of any background. In our film, the leads happen to be two Asian-American women fighting back and that felt universal.
Asian A.V. Club: Watching Unseen through the eyes of a 2023 lens, I couldn’t help but think about the traumatic anger and violence aimed towards Asian women. So to then watch a film where they fight back, whether you meant to do it or not, was highly cathartic and empowering to watch. Did the perception of your film change while you were editing it?
Yoko Okumura: It’s amazing because a movie continues to evolve after you are done making it. The consciousness and the subjectivity of the viewer continues to evolve around the person who is watching the movie. I think when we were making the movie, we were like this is an empowerment film for us as people. But now it’s so clear to me, watching it back as an audience member myself, so much violence in our community has occurred against us. There’s a specificity now of what it means to be an Asian-American woman in a relationship, in a domestic abuse situation or whether it’s strangers with guns. But then again, all of those things we are uniquely experiencing as a community right now, also continues to be unfortunately universal. I love that anybody could watch this and feel an emotional connection to these scenarios, but again, the fact that we got to have Midori and Jolene play those women, gives our community a specificity that perhaps we haven’t been able to see before.
Asian A.V. Club: Because so much happens to our two leads, was there ever a line that you drew so that the chaos didn’t go overboard?
Yoko Okumura: I don’t know if there was a limit (laughs). I mean as far as narratively, all of it came from the writers. They originated the abundance of crisis building, and for me it was just embracing it and making sure that I had the cinematic tools in the camerawork, the music, and the sound to support that chaos and push it viscerally for the audience to experience. I don’t think I held back, for me it was just like more, more, more!
Asian A.V. Club: Unseen comes from the infamous Blumhouse studio. What were they like to work with especially since they have such a stronghold on successful horror genre films.
Yoko Okumura: I had been a fan of for so long. Not only of their big films, but also the successes of their lower budget ones. I was really following their Into the Dark series that they made for Hulu. Mainly the fact that they made contained horror films and that I could actually be somebody that worked in that model.
In terms of working with them, I had nothing but support and I feel like they know how to hire people and match them with the right projects. They knew I was a filmmaker who loves to tell stories that are tense and horrific, but also add a level of glitter and fun. I think they knew that a director like me would be good for this particular story, so they were really good matchmakers and by the end of the day they were like, we know what you do, go do it. So they really were quite supportive.
Asian A.V. Club: At what point in your life were your Asian parents like, you know what, we are okay with the career that you have chosen? (laughs)
Yoko Okumura: What’s so funny is, maybe my specific Asian parents as immigrants go against the grain of a stereotype, because they were actually always supportive of me in the arts. My mom was always creative and artistic and my dad became a Buddhist monk when he was young and his parents didn’t want him to. So I think there’s always been like a rebellious creative streak in our family no matter what. And so I was encouraged to do arts from a very young age and they were like, they didn’t want to buy me frivolous stuff, but they were like if it’s art supplies we will buy it for you. So it was actually really against the grain of what a lot of people experience with their parents.
Asian A.V. Club: Sadly we have to go but thank you for talking to us!
Yoko Okumura: That was fun, thank you.
The Unseen is available digitally March 7th and will stream on MGM+ later in 2023
Insider: The Glory part 2
So you haven’t pressed play on Part 2 of the Netflix global k-drama sensation The Glory just yet. Which is a good thing cause the Asian A.V. club has some interesting insider details from the creator (and mega successful writer) Kim Eun-sook on how this revenge fantasy is going to play out in it’s final moments.
For the uninitiated (and what’s up with that?), The Glory tells the story of Moon Dong-eun (played against type by superstar Song Hye-kyo) who was horribly bullied in high school and returns with a plan to take everyone down to the bitter end. Just how will Part 2 top the twists and turns of its predecessor?
On the success of Part 1
Kim Eun-sook: Part 1 was so successful that I got scared. During the first or the second or the third day since the release of Part 1, I felt like that was it. But I was dumbfounded and even more scared to see how it was getting so much love. So I thought to myself, wait a minute, what did I write in Part 2? And I went back and looked at the script and was like oh my god, it’s so great. It is so great.
On the question from her daughter that started it all:
Kim Eun-sook: It all started from my daughter’s question, “would you feel worse if I’m beaten or would you feel worse if I hit other people?” And when I was writing the script, I was trying to find an answer to that question. If my daughter is beaten to death, there might be a solution and that solution would be pulling all the perpetrators to hell because I have the money to do so. But in The Glory, this can’t happen to Dong-eun, right? I think most of the victims can’t solve the problem like this, so I wanted to cheer for them because reality is harsh. And I hope Dong-eun’s vengeance is successful. So that’s how I tried to lead my storyline towards.
On naming the head antagonist Yeon-jin:
Kim Eun-sook: To all the Yeon-jins in Korea and in the globe, I’m sorry because you have the same name with the character Yeon-jin. I’m sure that you’re having a hard time right now, so I would like to say sorry to all the people who go by the name of Yeon-jin. But I hope that you enjoy the show and there’s nothing I can do about it.
On waiting for part 2 to come out:
Kim Eun-sook: I had to create a text message (chain) saying I cannot say anything about Part 2 (laughs). Some of you have watched episodes 9 & 10 (of part 2), from 11, it gets even better! [Asian A.V. Club not so spoiler, spoiler - episode 9 & 10 takes a step back in the timeline to give us an idea what happens to the missing Myeong-oh. But once we head back into the current times, the twists come on all fronts, even to our protagonist Dong-eun who might not have everything in her revenge fantasy under control. Ep 11 onwards people!]
And a final word from lead actress Song Hye-kyo:
Dong-eun says this particular line, she says “there is no mercy and therefore no glory.” And I feel like this line just sums up who and what Dong-eun is. She will not be showing any mercy and also knows that she is becoming a perpetrator from being a victim. And she understands and knows that she is not seeking glory. It’s not a type of revenge where a person thinks, I’m going to get revenge and live a happy life. She’s saying, I’m going to get my revenge and I’m going to die with you.
Yeesh! The Glory Part 2 will be released globally on March 10, only on Netflix.
And before we go, here are some titles you should tick off from your club viewing agenda.
Scream 6 (In Theatres) - aka Ghostface in the city. Will any of the ‘core 4’ (Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Mason Gooding) make it out alive now that there’s alot more people blocking their way in New York when they’re running from a killer on the streets. Ugh… people.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods (In Theatres) - Just the words Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu and Rachel Zegler as the baddies should make you want to watch this fun spandex-athon!
John Wick: Chapter 4 (In Theatres) - Keanu Reeves returns with a massive 169 minute fighting-palooza which includes Donnie Yen, Hiroyuki Sanada, pop star Rina Sawayama and Scott Adkins!
Kill Boksoon (Netflix) - Cannes winner Jeon Do-yeon (Secret Sunshine) goes against type as a superstar assassin by night and an under-appreciated mother to a teenager by day. Do you need to know more about this Netflix film that world-premiered at Berlin to fun reviews last month?
Rye Lane (Hulu) - It’s the ultimate meet-cute rom com caper set in the neighborhood of Peckham. South London represents yo!
Ted Lasso (Apple TV+) - Why is this the final season for this beyond charming show? It’s even made us like sports!
Succession (HBO) - Another final season for a show that is just beyond great. It’s even made us like corporate mergers and acquisitions!
Beef (Netflix) - It’s Steven Yeun and Ali Wong in a road rage instigated dark comedy/drama. I mean!
The Company You Keep (abc) - A family of grifters (Polly Draper! Sarah Wayne Callies! William Fichtner!) spearheaded by Milo Ventimiglia gets tangled in returning a major debt and having the little issue of our leading man falling in love with the beautiful Catherine Haena Kim, who’s also a CIA officer. It’s not changing tv, but it’s definitely fun stuff for the evening.
The Power (Prime Video) - Superfans of the book by Naomi Alderman are going to pick apart this sci-fi series adaptation, but based on what we’ve seen, the power of teenage girls is going to be explosive fun!
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Thanks for reading Asian A.V. Club! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.