Filmmaker Interview by William Hemingway
Hi Jiwon. Thanks for sitting down with us to chat about your films and filmmaking.
Where in the world do we find you today and how are you doing?
Thanks for inviting me, I’m so excited about the interview today. I am a writer and director based in Los Angeles who is also working as the showrunner’s assistant for Netflix’s XO, Kitty Season 2! I’ve been learning so much about TV writing through my current job, so I’ve been doing wonderful these days.
We’re here to talk about your short film Call For Cassie, could you take a little time to outline what the film is about to our readers and say why this was an important story that you felt you wanted to tell?
For sure! Call for Cassie tells the story of a Chinese mother/masseuse Cassie who works in Koreatown, Los Angeles, to support her son in China. On her birthday, she is visited by her married lover, who later dumps her as his wife has found out about the affair. When Cassie gets a surprise visit from her lover’s wife, she battles between her desires and her moral conscience.
As a Third Culture Kid raised in China, images of cheap massages and the themes of battling between identities closely resonated with me, and I was certain that it would speak to the experience of many Asian women as well.
You have previously talked about the dual identity of women, and in particular Asian women, in society. Can you explain a little of that duality as you see it and tell us how that affected your approach to writing/filming Call For Cassie?
At the heart of it all, Cassie is a story about duality. It’s the ironic identity of Cassie who’s both an outsider (a first generation immigrant) yet an insider (a masseuse who is intimately connected with her customers), a mother who battles between her responsibilities and her desires to be loved as a woman, and Cassie’s dualistic work as a masseuse, which can both be viewed as arduous physical labor but also a form of spiritual art.
Duality especially in the context of one’s identity is a familiar experience to most Asian women who are in or have exposure to Western society. The expectations that we were raised with since we were young often differ from what we see around us, and sometimes, even the desires and identities we form within ourselves. Naturally, I’ve often heard from fellow Asian friends who experience an identity crisis, as they try to discover their “true self” amidst the many identities they present to different people.
Such dilemma is portrayed through the many sides of our protagonist Cassie throughout her day in the film. I hope her joys and struggles speak and comfort audiences who have shared similar experiences with her.
You have described yourself before as a Third Culture Kid, can you explain this a little and also how you feel that this has informed your creative output and the type of stories/characters you use in your films?
Third Culture Kid, or TCK, refers to someone who has spent the majority of their developmental years outside of their passport country. I am a TCK who was born in Korea, and raised in Korea, Malaysia, China and have been living in the United States for the past five years.
Because I was constantly thrown into new environments and cultures, I have always had difficulty connecting with stories that were being told to me. Yet, as a child who wanted to fit in, I always had to feign an interest and put on a different face, so that I could conform to the culture of my new environment. Perhaps because so, I have long had a desire to tell my story, which materialized in my current career as a filmmaker. I do tend to notice that my stories and characters somewhat embody how I got my start as a storyteller — I like to tell stories of outsiders and their arduous journey to find a place to belong.
Can you talk a little about the use of different lenses and colour palettes within Call For Cassie and how you came to make these technical choices? How much do you enjoy the technical aspects of filmmaking as opposed to writing/creating?
Yes! The use of colors was my favorite part of bringing Cassie to life. There are largely three locations in the film. First, the bathroom, which represents the loneliness and dullness Cassie feels in life, also shown through her act of smoking by herself. The bathroom, accordingly, is our most desaturated space with lots of grey. The opposite end of that spectrum is the private massage room where Cassie makes love to her lover. Passionate red and orange were our core colors here. We finally end on the exterior of the massage parlor, which acts as an in-between or reality that Cassie has come to terms with. Hence, it is the in-between of our dull bathroom and our crazed private room, shown through darker shades of purple. In terms of lenses, my favorite choice was to use the fisheye lens as Cassie begins to feel the urge to murder her lover’s wife. Some of these technical choices, especially color, came naturally to me even as I was writing the script. I think it’s because the script initially came from my very tactile personal memories of massages and massage parlors.
While I usually come in with some ideas for the technical aspect of filmmaking, I like to leave most of the work to my crew. As a writer/director, my job is to ultimately oversee and provide guidance on what emotions or narratives the scene is trying to convey, and it is up to the crew members to decide how that should be executed. That’s why I truly believe one of the most important and hardest parts of making a film is finding the right people to work with!
You needed to crowdfund to get Call For Cassie made. Is this a process that you enjoy/feel builds a community around your film or do you see it as more of a necessary evil for independent filmmakers?
I think it really depends on the filmmaker and the type of project they’re going in with. I do believe crowdfunding is more effective with a film with a clear social message, which wasn’t quite the case for Call for Cassie. But I was still so, very fortunate enough to be connected to a wide array of supporters who supported my vision and allowed the film to come to life. While it was stressful at times, I think crowdfunding did force me to pitch the film many times to many people, and in the process, I learned to market myself and my project, which is an essential skill for all filmmakers in the industry.
How does Call For Cassie compare and fit in with your previous short films, Afterlife (2019) and The Drive (2021)? Do you see a commonality in the themes and characters or is each new project a completely different entity for you where you can explore brand new things?
I certainly see a continuation of similar themes and characters. I think all three films explore the complexities of human relationships, and how they affect us as a person. But generally speaking, I do like to see each new project as a different entity — at least until I have a few produced features under my belt. As a creative who is still learning and trying to find my voice, I think it is a waste to pigeonhole myself into a particular theme or genre at this time, and I’d like to try every different idea in my head until I become a seasoned filmmaker with a distinct brand.
You have previously talked about division, uncertainty and pain within the Asian American community in recent times. Do you think things are getting better for Asian filmmakers/actors in Western cinema? In your view, have films such as Everything, Everywhere All At Once, and the profile of Parasite, Past Lives, and Drive My Car done anything to improve how Asians are represented in Hollywood and beyond?
While there is still a long way to go in terms of representation in the industry, I do think the past years of success for Asian creatives and Asian stories in Hollywood have been a great encouragement for all of us Asian storytellers.
Call for Cassie was written and pitched shortly after the pandemic, which was a very difficult time for Asian communities. I think one of the greatest ways we can learn to be more empathetic toward each other is through diverse stories that allow us to connect with those who are different from us, which is why representation is such an important issue. Amazing Asian-centered stories told through the great films that you have mentioned and beyond have opened doors for even more diverse storytelling in the community, and I am so thrilled to see what’s in store in the coming years as well — both as a fellow filmmaker and as an audience!
South Korea has a long and distinguished history in filmmaking, with some of my own favourite films of all time coming from that part of the world. Do you have favourite filmmakers who have inspired you or influenced how you make your own films?
While I have many favorite Korean filmmakers of my own whom I respect so dearly, I have had the greatest honor of hearing closely from the global auteur Park Chan-wook while translating for him at various events. I was provided with so much insight into the details he puts into each stage of filmmaking — especially in the storyboarding phase — and the ways that he communicates with his solid group of very talented crew members, and I can only dream of making work I’m proud enough of to share with him one day.
I would also like to mention the underrated Korean film House of Hummingbird (2018), which was written and directed by a woman director Bora Kim, as it is one of my favorite movies of all time!
You’ve already moved onto your next project as writer on the new short film, Kiki & The Ghost – what’s left to do on this project for you and what are your hopes for the film in the future?
Kiki & The Ghost is currently on its festival run! It was one of the rare instances in which I wrote a film I did not direct, and the film actually got produced! I was so happy with how the film turned out, and I hope it gets to be screened at various festivals around the world for different audiences.
Where can viewers currently get to see Call For Cassie, or any of your other films?
As of now, our upcoming screening for Call for Cassie is on April 13 at the Regal Theater in Los Angeles for Indie Short Fest. Tickets will be available soon, so please follow our IG page @callforcassie for a chance to see the film on the big screen!
My other works can be viewed on my Vimeo page (https://vimeo.com/user91199873)
What is next for Jiwon Lee?
I’ve been having so much fun working in the writers’ room at my current job! I want to hone my writing skills more for the next year and hopefully get an opportunity to be staffed as a writer myself! Of course, if I have any irresistible short film ideas in the process, I will make the bad mistake of emptying my savings account for another short as well.