A #hyphenatedAsians POV: Joseph Juhn & 'Chosen' documentary
Please tell me about your background: Where are you from? What is your job? etc.
My name is Joseph, and I am currently working on a documentary about five Korean Americans who ran for the U.S. Congress. So, I’m in the thick of the post-production process. Prior to this, I made a film titled "Jeronimo," which was about a Korean-Cuban revolutionary who was born and raised in Cuba, fought in the Cuban Revolution, went to law school with Fidel Castro, and worked with Che Guevara—who served in the Castro government for 30 years. For the first time in Jeronimo’s life, he visited South Korea at the invitation of the government, and his life transformed as a result. He spent the rest of his 10-plus years reconstructing and rediscovering his sense of Korean identity and reviving the Korean community in Cuba. Those are the two projects that I have my hands on. Prior to all that, I was actually an attorney. I’m a Korean American, who was born in the U.S., raised in Korea, and came back to the U.S. at the end of high school.
What inspired you to become an attorney, and what made you shift into a more creative role creating documentaries and films?
I actually studied film and video during my undergraduate studies. However, my college, UC San Diego, was more theory-based and less production-based. However, I was primarily interested in film because it is a great means for sharing social causes and stories about social causes, which was how I initially got hooked into the idea of studying film. However, towards the end of college, I realized that film can only show social injustices, and that if I wanted to be more of an active agent of change, I should go to law school. So, the motivation for me to study film and law are actually the same. The funny thing is that life doesn’t necessarily pan out the way you want. Instead of becoming a human rights lawyer, I actually ended up working at a Korean government agency advising intellectual property and startup law instead. However, a serendipitous backpacking trip to Cuba changed everything.
What was the inspiration behind your first documentary "Jeromino" and your second project "Chosen"?
For "Jeromino," it came down to a random backpacking trip to Cuba when I ran into the descendants of Korean ancestors [sic]. In a way, that serendipitous encounter answered my lifelong query on this notion of identity of: “What does it mean to be a member of the Korean diaspora—those who lived outside their home country, including myself?” Whenever I travelled back to Korea, I would always be questioned as to how authentic I am in terms of my “Koreanness,” how committed and loyal am I, and how much do I identify myself as a Korean. Some believe that Koreans living outside of Korea are not authentic enough or legitimate enough. They don’t even think about how they can build a relationship with Korean diasporians. I think the effort (to do so) from a more national level is also significantly lacking. As such, this has been one of the many questions that I have: “What kind of relationships should exist between the people from the home country and people who live outside (of it)?”
It was only when I went to Cuba and ran into the Korean descendants that it opened a can of worms for me. It was not even taught in history books that there are Koreans living in Cuba. I sort of uncovered them by accident. That whole incident really got me thinking that there are some great treasures hidden in their stories. The fact that I was struggling and wrestling with the issue of identity and being a (member of the Korean) diaspora, and somehow ran into a group of people who might know the secret to that treasure, resulted in my deciding to make a film about it.
When I finished making "Jeronimo," I didn’t think that I would continue making other films or have a career switch. I just thought that this might be a year or two passion project sabbatical, and that I would then go back to practicing law. However, once again, life doesn’t pan out the way you want it to. I was enjoying the fruit of "Jeronimo" as I was scheduled to screen my film in over 30-40 places around the U.S., Asia, Europe, and other places. But then COVID hit and all the screenings were cancelled. Obviously, that was really depressing because I was just about to share my film. Despite that, I was lucky enough to have my film open in theatres in Korea.
So, I was in Korea contemplating what I should do next, and it was during this time that I became increasingly worried about the politics in the U.S. Seeing the way things were going and the mishandling of the pandemic where so many people died was an existential threat to (all of) us. It was around that time that I read that there were five Korean-Americans running for the U.S. Congress, and I wondered if anyone was documenting their story. I started to make contacts and asked them if they minded me tagging along for the next two months or so. They were all fine with it as long as we adhered to safety precautions.
If you’re familiar with John Bolton, he was the previous national security adviser to Trump. I read part of his book where he talked about how the peace treaty between North Korea and the U.S. failed. He mentioned that one of the reasons that the deal failed was because of the ego and self-interest of some of the major decision makers, such as Trump, Bolton, Pompeo, and some others, including diplomats. As I was reading this, I was thinking about how the fate of an entire peninsula country is in the hands of a few people who happen to be in this decision-making process. I wondered: “What are the ways to resolve this? Perhaps, if some of the Korean Americans were to occupy important decision-making positions in the U.S. government they might be able to positively influence the outcome of some of the treaties.”
At least that was my hypothesis. It was also around then that I read this article about the five Korean-Americans running for Congress, so I thought to myself, I’m going to jump onto this new project!
When is the "Chosen" documentary going to debut?
The U.S. presidential election was about a month ago (*interview with Joseph was during the beginning of December) so we were able to shoot about three months worth of footage. We are currently doing our story construction because when we first started, we didn’t know how it was going to turn out. What I was interested in was not only on the national level but the candidates’ own personal stories, their role as Korean diasporians, and why they decided to run. So, I’m trying to reconstruct the whole narrative. Once this process is done, I’ll start to edit it. I presume this will take about 6-7 months from today.
Are you currently working on this project full-time?
Yeah, I’m not working on the side. I’m going all-in on this project, but I still have the desire and curiosity to practice law or something related to human rights or even media law. I do envision myself going back at some point. One of the famous lines in the movie "Parasite" is: “I have no plan and that’s my plan.” That’s not exactly my motto, but I feel that whatever I plan out generally doesn’t pan out. However, in the end I end up in good places.
Taking time off from your legal career and going full-time into creating documentaries can be daunting to some people. Have you ever come across any particular barriers that have made you doubt yourself?
I think there are a couple of occasions where I think about it…not necessarily self-doubt, but I would constantly think about how I can improve. One of the life lessons that I learned when I was at this conference six years ago by a top-notch designer in NYC was that when he made big decisions, he just jumped off the cliff and then thought about how to open the parachute later. I approach things with the same mentality, especially when I am overwhelmed with passion to tell stories.
What would your advice be for younger creatives or film makers?
I don’t think I’m in the right position to actually advise them, but I’ll try! I will quote some philosophers because I don’t think I have what it takes to advise others, especially when I’m trying to figure it out myself as well. Recently, I came across this philosopher by the name of Choi Jin-seok, a very renowned philosopher from Korea. He said: “The only time when a being exists, is when that person questions and not when he answers.” In other words, only by questioning then you are actually existing in the world, because if you have an answer to a set of problems or questions, this means the knowledge already exists in the world and you’re just regurgitating it.