Authored by Emily Jisoo
Director Grant Hyun’s short film “Koreatown” is based on a true story about a male do-umi (Korean for escort) who works in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, one of the largest of its kind. With Korean-American films, you might expect stories of hardworking parents who build their lives on sacrifice, and second-generation kids who struggle with their cultural identity. Koreatown offers something very different, almost surreal, but very much grounded in its surroundings and approach.
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In the year 2007, the movie tells the story of Kyeong, who works at a Korean karaoke bar as a do-umi. His job involves entertaining female customers by serving them drinks and singing for them. As the story unfolds, we see the challenges of his life that involve heavy drinking, aggression, and emotional labor. When an older Korean woman offers him more money to visit her house, he reluctantly agrees and fulfills her unsettling demand.
Hyun aimed to bring attention to the little-known group of male do-umis who were employed at karaoke bars in Koreatown during the 2000s. These men have since disappeared due to police interventions. While host bars are prevalent in Korea and Japan, it is less common to encounter male escorts in Western countries, especially those who openly work at such establishments. The film flips traditional gender roles and presents the desires of female clients in a non-judgmental manner, while also highlighting the inherent discomfort of these fabricated relationships.
However, it is not only love that these Korean women desire; they also long for a link to their native country. They seek a Korean partner who will serenade them with beloved Korean tunes and reminisce about their upbringing (for a price, of course). The cultural particulars of the noraebang may deceive you into feeling like you are back in Korea, mirroring how Kyeong fabricates a sense of romance for his customers.
Sunho Yoo, a newcomer, is well-suited for the part. He exudes a masculine aura while also displaying a contemplative nature. The weight of balancing the roles of both boyfriend and employee is evident on his stoic expression. Crystal Lee shines in her portrayal of the client who invites Kyeong to her home. She exudes an icy and unapologetic demeanor, but it is clear that there is a deep longing for connection hidden behind her façade.
The movie is visually perfect. Alfonso Herrera Salcedo’s cinematography smoothly transitions between the seedy noraebang rooms and the bustling highways of LA. The bold red and blue lighting intensifies the artificiality of the characters. The scenes are accompanied by an echoing electronic soundtrack, and the lively 70s Korean pop song ‘All of you’ during the climax creates a chilling juxtaposition to Kyeong’s predicament.
It’s rare for a short film to contain such depth within its slim runtime, but “Koreatown” features both complex characters and a strong sense of place in a sleek and stylish way. The feature length film hasn’t yet materialized, but expect great things from director Grant Hyun.