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Director Joseph Juhn tells multi-layered story about Korean-Americans in U.S. politics

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A scene from the documentary "Chosen" shows David Kim in the streets of Los Angeles as he runs for Congress in 2020, representing the people of district 34 in Los Angeles. [CONNECT PICTURES]
A scene from the documentary “Chosen” shows David Kim in the streets of Los Angeles as he runs for Congress in 2020, representing the people of district 34 in Los Angeles. [CONNECT PICTURES]

In the new independent documentary “Chosen,” director Joseph Juhn, 38, tells the stories of five Korean-Americans who ran for Congress in 2020 and the historic results of the elections.

But peel one layer deeper, Juhn told the Korea JoongAng Daily in an interview, and “it’s a story about family, the collective history of Korean-Americans and Korean-American identity.”

The inspiration for the film came from a book by John Bolton, U.S. National Security Advisor during Trump’s administration.

While reading a chapter about the 2019 North Korea–United States Hanoi Summit, Juhn, as a Korean-American himself, was taken aback when he realized that the fate of an entire country can be dictated by the decision of a U.S. politician.

“It made me wonder, what if those positions were occupied by Korean-Americans?” he said, “Maybe they might have rendered a more favorable policy toward peace.”

Director Joseph Juhn is behind the independent documentary film "Chosen." It hit local theaters on Nov. 4. [CONNECT PICTURES]
Director Joseph Juhn is behind the independent documentary film “Chosen.” It hit local theaters on Nov. 4. [CONNECT PICTURES]

Juhn then learned that five Korean-Americans — David Kim in California, Marilyn Strickland in Washington, Michelle Park Steel in California, Young Kim in California, and Andy Kim in New Jersey — were running for Congress in 2020, and decided to document their stories until the elections. Four of the five were elected. David Kim narrowly missed out on a seat.

Prior to 2020, only two Korean-Americans had ever been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The next elections are Nov. 8, and all four incumbent candidates as well as David Kim, are running.

"Chosen" captures Congresswomen Michelle Park Steel, left, and Young Kim, waving to the cameras after the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected Congress in 2020. [CONNECT PICTURES]
“Chosen” captures Congresswomen Michelle Park Steel, left, and Young Kim, waving to the cameras after the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected Congress in 2020. [CONNECT PICTURES]

But “Chosen” isn’t a self-congratulatory success story for Koreans and how much representation they have in U.S. Congress; it is the opposite of that.

“I wanted to tackle taboo topics like race, sexual minority, LGBTQ, Christianity versus progressive ideals, generational dilemma, domestic violence [surrounding the Korean-American community] — I wanted to go there,” Juhn said.

He also provides intriguing insights about the Korean diaspora in the United States, tracing back its tension with the Black community to the LA riots in 1992 and the recent anti-Asian hate crimes following the outbreak of Covid-19.

“A lot of Koreans before the LA riots regarded themselves as just immigrants — Koreans living in America. But after the riots, they felt the need to become Korean-Americans,” he said, adding that the riots acted as momentum for more Korean-Americans to become involved in U.S. politics. “Learning about the riots was how I came into terms with my Korean-American identity as well. To understand what it means to be Korean-American, I think we have to understand the collective suffering that our community faced in 1992.”

"Chosen" shows footage of the LA Riots, otherwise known as the Saigu Riots, in 1992. [CONNECT PICTURES]
“Chosen” shows footage of the LA Riots, otherwise known as the Saigu Riots, in 1992. [CONNECT PICTURES]

Unfortunately, the film is not available on any streaming platforms as of now. According to Juhn, after months of negotiations with streaming companies, everything fell through.

“I was quite frustrated,” said Juhn.

What it ultimately boiled down to was the question of the documentary’s profitability, “And they just didn’t see it.”

Though Juhn was modest, the fact that his film was unable to make it onto any streaming sites is proof that Asian narratives still fail to be properly represented, largely because the topic lacks public interest and therefore, is deemed unprofitable.

There is no question “Chosen” is a well-made film with universal messages and values. It also sharply depicts the race dynamics leading up to the surge in Asian hate crimes and how Black people and Korean-Americans have been pitted against each other since 1992 by those in politics and the justice system at the time.

Many other Asian American documentary filmmakers have a hard time finding platforms to distribute their works to as well, according to Juhn.

Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland representing Washington's 10th congressional district was sworn into Congress wearing hanbok, otherwise known as Korean traditional dress, in 2020. [CONNECT PICTURES]
Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland representing Washington’s 10th congressional district was sworn into Congress wearing hanbok, otherwise known as Korean traditional dress, in 2020. [CONNECT PICTURES]

While it is disappointing that the documentary is currently not available on streaming platforms, “Chosen” hit local big screens on Friday.

Local production company, Connect Pictures, is behind the local theater screening of “Chosen.” It had brought Juhn’s previous film “Jeronimo” (2019), which was also his first film.

Originally a lawyer, Juhn hadn’t planned on becoming a director. But during his trip to Cuba, he encountered Koreans there and decided to film them, thinking he would make a 20-minute YouTube clip. But that project turned into the 90-minute feature documentary “Jeronimo.”

It was seen by over 20,000 people in Korea when it opened in theaters and was selected by 17 film festivals around the world.

Congressman Andy Kim representing New Jersey's 3rd congressional district and his supporters are shown in "Chosen" [CONNECT PICTURES]
Congressman Andy Kim representing New Jersey’s 3rd congressional district and his supporters are shown in “Chosen” [CONNECT PICTURES] 

Prior to arriving in Korea for the Seoul premiere of “Chosen” in late October, Juhn was on the road traveling across America to attend 45 screenings at 30 different college campuses.

“It’s been quite a thrilling ride,” said Juhn.

While on tour he received some responses that include Koreans who said that they felt like they were seen through “Chosen” and also, many non-Koreans who said that they had never thought about the LA riots from Koreans’ perspective and that the film was new and refreshing.

“I found these comments to be a validation of our commonality, that yes we may see the world differently, but once we recognize the other as a fellow human being that is a stronger pull than any differences,” said Juhn.

These first-hand encounters with his audiences are also what keep Juhn motivated as a director and storyteller of diasporic narratives.

“As I travel to different communities and have very honest and vulnerable interactions with the audiences, I’ve come to realize the value of this kind of storytelling, and I find great joy in it.”

BY LEE JIAN [lee.jian@joongang.co.kr]