Flixist has never truly covered many short films throughout its lifespan. While we’ve dabbled in reviews for some shorts, we typically stick to longer theatrical releases as that’s what is available to us. A good majority of the coverage we do is from films we can see in theaters, which limits us quite a bit. Still, every now and then, an opportunity comes along that allows Flixist to branch out and tackle different material.
That’s the case with Motherland, a short film by director Christina Yoon that tackles the subject of South Korean adoptees and their desire to become reacquainted with their motherland. Since I have a strong interest in Asian media and have wanted to learn more about the Korean film industry, I jumped at the chance to speak with Yoon about her experience filming this and what she hopes to achieve with the film.
There won’t be a formal review of Motherland, but I can wrap up my thoughts here. Lead actress Tiffany Chu perfectly captures the befuddlement and confusion one would have when stepping onto foreign soil despite having a direct link to it. The cinematography helps elicit some of that confusion as it’s never giving you the full picture of where the character is. The film also does a great job of highlighting the language barrier that Korean Americans have when they’ve never been exposed to their native tongue.
It is a powerful short, but at 17 minutes, I’m somewhat at a loss for what else to say. The questions the short raises are very intriguing and Motherland puts a spotlight on an issue I didn’t even know existed. That’s part of the power of short films: to give us glimpses of different worlds and entice us to dig deeper. Christina Yoon’s direction is also very solid and I hope she winds up tackling longer projects in the future.
That seems to be the plan, as well. While my viewing of the movie and my discussion with Yoon happened a few days apart, I took that time to reflect on the short and compose some questions that I believed would give audiences the best understanding of Yoon’s intentions. One of the first things I learned is that Yoon does intend Motherland to act as a proof-of-concept for a longer version. The film ends mostly unresolved, which is a fairly typical scenario for people in a similar situation. A longer version wouldn’t magically create a fictional happy ending, but it might provide an epilogue where we see some of the protagonist’s life after reaching a dead end.
The next question I figured was most important was where the inspiration for Motherland came from. The story is written from a very caring and passionate place, so I wondered if Yoon was an adoptee herself. “I’m Korean-American, but not a Korean adoptee myself,” Yoon said. “I lived in Korea for two years in my 20s and I met a lot of Korean adoptees while I was there. Getting to understand their struggle with trying to reconnect with their motherland and learning their native language, I learned about how there are hundreds of thousands of Korean adoptees around the world.”
Yoon had never been exposed to this community before, which is probably similar to almost anyone living in America. Yoon grew up in a very diverse neighborhood, which her website states was in NYC. As she discovered from speaking with various people, most Korean adoptees are sent to predominantly white families in the US. “Learning about their struggles and experiences and all of the systemic issues adoptees face, I was really compelled by it and wanted to tell their stories.”
Motherland is not based on one particular story but is an amalgamation of different accounts Yoon heard during her research. Yoon is friends with some Korean adoptees and was able to have conversations with them that formed the basis of Motherland. While the plot is very likely to have happened to someone, it takes different perspectives and meshes them together to land on one particular story beat. This got me thinking about if any one story made a dramatic impact on Yoon.
“I think the stories where there are lies and deceptions, kind of like the one we ended up telling,” Yoon responded. “The adoption agencies would end up telling the adoptive parents one story like, ‘Oh, this was a teen mother and she wanted her child to have a good life,’ just to make the adoptive parents feel good. That was actually a lie. The parents were forced to give their child up, or as we wrote [in Motherland], one parent took the child away and put them in an orphanage. Those stories were the most tragic to hear about.”
The story in Motherland begins with its main character speaking with a receptionist at an adoption agency and asking for information about her birth parents. In South Korea, adoption agencies are extremely protective of the birth families and will not reveal any information without complete consent. It’s also not a requirement for birth families to provide any information for their children to find them, which winds up causing many searches to end before they begin. Yoon explained this to me when I asked if this secrecy was a common thing with Korean adoptees.
“For a lot of individuals, it’s simply a dead end. Some agencies will get in touch with an individual’s birth parents, but then the parents will say, ‘I’m not interested in meeting them.’ That’s just where it ends for them. Unfortunately, they don’t have a lot of rights. People have been fighting to gain more rights so that things aren’t so skewed towards the parents, but many simply can’t move forward beyond the agency.”
The hope with Motherland is that this movie will spur societal change, or at least get people talking about the issues adoptees face. In that sense, the project was a personal journey for Yoon. She cares deeply about social issues and wants to help in the best manner she can. As should be evident from this interview, Yoon is very much in touch with her Korean identity and wants to continue to explore that through film.
That desire for authenticity is why Motherland was filmed on location in South Korea. “It was important to get a real sense of Korea and the different environments that Korea has. It helped [Motherland] to be traveling through this new world with her,” Yoon stated. To that end, Yoon cast Tiffany Chu in the lead role since she not only looked appropriately Korean but was an American first.
“Casting the Korean actors was not an issue,” Yoon explains. “Once we got to Korea and did pre-production with the producers there, we reached out to the actors and talked to them about joining. Casting the lead was really tricky. She had to be American and speak English with a perfect American accent. She also had to either be Korean or look Korean. We also shot this during COVID, so she had to be willing to fly out and then quarantine for 14 days in a hotel room before the shoot.”
Those stipulations meant Yoon’s potential pool of candidates was incredibly narrow. Yoon also wanted a very specific type of energy for the main character as most of the Korean adoptees she spoke to were more guarded when talking about their pasts. She wanted someone who could reveal a more vulnerable side when called for, but also act more stoically as it was the most common emotion adoptees had.
“A lot of the actresses we auditioned would come in and have a lot of emotions coming out of them, which is great,” Yoon said, “but for this role, I needed to see way less of that. Because of that, casting took months of going through tapes and seeing who could fit the character best but also be able to fly to Korea and do the whole thing. We ended up with Tiffany [Chu], who I thought was a really great fit.”
Tiffany Chu is a Taiwanese-American actress who was not only crowned the Miss Taiwanese American Pageant First Princess but starred as Sophie in Twitch’s interactive show Artificial. As Yoon stated, Chu could pass as Korean, but one of the bigger reasons for her casting is that she does not understand Korean. It was central to the role in Motherland that she had a befuddled look on her face when the native Korean characters were speaking to her.
To wrap up the conversation about Motherland, I wanted to know why Yoon decided to make this a short film instead of a feature-length one. The answer is unlikely to shock you. “A lot of reasons. Financial, first of all,” Yoon laughed. “Also, Motherland was my graduate thesis film at Colombia Film School, so I had to make it a short.” A longer version of the movie isn’t off the cards but has been shelved for the moment as Yoon focuses on different projects.
While there was more to our conversation that I would like to share, I feel that the insights Yoon gave me can constitute another article. This post is meant to highlight my feelings on Motherland and give a spotlight to that, specifically. I wouldn’t normally split an interview in two, but the rest of our discussion has little to do with this short film.
Join me next time as I detail some of Yoon’s hopes for the future of her career and get an explanation of how her Korean-American identity will play a key part in molding the films she creates.