One year after the death of his best friend, Sam Kim (Sung Kang, Fast Five) returns to Los Angeles determined to resolve this past chapter of his life. His mentor and only friend, Don (Tom Bower, Die Hard II), is a retired gangster with a parallel desire to leave the former world behind. But as Sam tries to balance revenge with reconciliation, he is drawn into the shadowy world he had left behind.
A highly personal and visually stunning film, ‘Undoing’ premiered at the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival before screening nationally and going on to a successful theatrical release. Lee recently sat down to reflect on the making of the film, and the ten years since the release of his first feature film, Yellow.
‘Undoing’ has been described as a noir or neo-noir film, and the film explores themes that are often associated with the genre: redemption and revenge. Can you talk about your interest in the genre, and how you developed out the concept for the film? I’ve always loved the genre, and my personal interpretation of noir informs what it means to me. I love the depiction and tone of LA in Chandler novels. And I was a huge fan of Hitchcock, who is not recognized as a true noir filmmaker but it can certainly be argued that films like Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, and Notorious have strong noir characteristics. I was also inspired by the French New Wave films I saw in film school that shared the same origins. The genre is an exciting challenge for a director as it makes high demands of your filmmaking craft and mise en scène. As directors love visual storytelling, noir can be a highly playful and challenging form where the urban, physical environment depicts the internal condition of the characters. Finding personal inroads to the motifs and archetypes of the noir vernacular is an essential part of defining an intimate exchange between the characters and viewer. Noir is a distinctly American genre, so I had a strong interest in making an Asian-American film in this arena. Noir is said to be born of the post WWII American psyche, and to me that has similarities to the concept of the collective Han in Korean culture, (Han is said to be the feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered), which is ingrained in the bones of the Korean people from wartime trauma throughout Korea’s history. I felt a natural intersection here.
Much of ‘Undoing’ is shot at night, and you capture a sleek, mysterious, colorful, but perhaps emotionally muted vision of Los Angeles. You are a long-time Los Angeles resident; tell us about how you wanted to represent the city and how you developed the aesthetic codes to do this. Los Angeles is a fascinating and enormous city of great diversity and yet there is an inherent loneliness to the sprawling landscape. Each of the characters in Undoing has a sort of private personal turmoil that he or she can’t quite articulate to anyone else, and yet in the filmic medium these private moments can be shared with an audience. This solitude of experience is depicted through identifiably ubiquitous Los Angeles locations in the film such as donut shops, parking lots, diners, and car washes. Near the beginning of the film, the main character Sam finds his older mentor Don seated amongst a large group of an older generation of men. But out of all of them it is only Don who we meet and whose past we glimpse at through his interaction with Sam. When Sam confronts his best friend Joon in a parking lot, they are diminished against the backdrop of a five-story concrete wall towering above. Such visual juxtapositions throughout the film were meant to underscore the individual being lost amid the sprawling, modular landscape of the city they live in. Capturing the Los Angeles environment in such way was one of the biggest practical challenges we faced in production as a low budget film. It’s often advised that independent films plan for few locations, but Karin Chien (Producer), Chris Stinson (Line Producer) and our team found ways to turn our minimal resources into accessible locations.
Your cast features a number of quite recognizable actors, including Sung Kang (Fast Five), Kelly Hu (X-Men), Russell Wong (Joy Luck Club), Leonardo Nam (The Perfect Score) and Tom Bower (Die Hard II). Assembling an ensemble is more than just faces and names, but chemistry, friction, personalities. How did you build out this group of actors? I met many fresh faces as well as established actors through my casting director Susan Shopmaker. But to rewind a bit – I had met Sung Kang in 1999 when we worked together on a project in New York. I wrote Undoing in 2001 with him in mind as the lead. A few of the other key performers, like Russell Wong and Bobby Lee, were introduced to me by Sung. When we met up with the actors that were being considered for lead roles, it was crucial during that time to discuss the characters and the script, before filming began, to see if the communication and chemistry was there.
Your 1998 film Yellow is a now classic work that introduced a number of now-well-known actors, including John Cho and Jason Tobin and is part of the Asian American film canon. Roughly ten years later, you made Undoing, which continued an exploration of Asian America, but from a quite different vantage point. What interests you about either telling Asian American stories, or casting Asian American actors? John always had a natural gift at comedy and it’s no surprise that he broke out displaying that strength. Jason was one of those actors that stood out immediately at the auditions and has since gone on to do a lot of interesting work. At the time I was developing Yellow, an early ally was my manager Eric Kim, who was the first Korean American agent in Hollywood. We shared a similar background – our parents were all first generation Korean Americans who owned grocery stores and who implored us to instead become doctors or to get MBA’s . We were also told from the outset by people in the industry that this coming-of-age drama/comedy about a Korean shopkeeper’s teenage son would never see the light of day or find an audience. However, the incredible thing is that along the way we found like-minded partners and champions of the project who shared an equal investment and purpose in getting the film made. And surprisingly Yellow found a niche audience in a theatrical run which lasted up to five weeks in 8 or 9 markets nationwide. This proved to me that telling stories of direct personal experience and deep personal meaning could work in the somewhat irrational undertaking of making an independent film. My experiences as an Asian American growing up in the 1970/ 80s in the Mission District of San Francisco was the personal connection that in fact gave me a certain conviction and voice as a filmmaker. Of course, I was also just pissed that there were so few Asian American representations in media while growing up!
What are you working on now? I’m writing a screenplay for a producer which deals with a subject that has interested me for a very long time, and a subject for which I can draw upon my own my family’s experience. It is exciting to finally have the opportunity to write this story, however I am not at liberty to talk about it further at this stage. I just finished as the editor and one of the producers of a feature film starring Jason Tobin and Eugenia Yuan called Jasmine, directed by a very talented first time writer/director named Dax Phelan. For the past year, I have been directing and filming a feature length music documentary which reunites longtime collaborators and it is coming together in an exciting way. Unfortunately I can’t talk about that yet either. But when we’re ready, I’ll be bugging you soon!