A Korean-born U.S. filmmaker is making a movie partially inspired by Rolf’s 1990’s expatriate writings about Busan. With the movie in pre-production, Rolf travels to Korea to reflect on the expat experience.
By Rolf Potts
I. Wonsuk Chin is Making a Movie About My Life
I have been in the southeastern Korean port city of Busan for two days now, and I have yet to meet a single Korean who is unnerved by the fact that Kim Jong-il has conducted a nuclear weapons test a few hours to the north. The closest thing I’ve seen to concern comes from a rosy-cheeked college student named Hae-Min, who I meet along the boardwalk at Haeundae Beach.
“The bomb test made me very nervous,” she says as we wait in line to buy bottled water from a street vendor. “I was afraid foreign reporters would be scared to come to the film festival.” She pauses and smiles, indicating the press pass hanging from my neck. “So, I’m happy to see you here.”
Hae-Min is talking about the Pusan International Film Festival —PIFF for short (the festival started in 1996, when Busan was still transliterated as “Pusan”)—and for South Koreans jaded by 50 years of provocations from the North, this event appears to be far more intriguing than the notion of nuclear war. Currently the biggest and most influential festival of its kind in Asia, this year’s PIFF boasts 170 feature films from 63 countries. Variety has nearly 20 reporters in Busan to publish a daily from the festival, and over 5,000 industry professionals are said to be in town for the festivities.
Despite my press credentials, however, my motivation for visiting Korea’s second-largest city goes beyond an interest in Korean Wave filmmaking or the desire to catch the latest Asian premieres. Rather, I am here because I worked in Busan as an English teacher in the late ’90s, and Korean-born U.S. director Wonsuk Chin has written a screenplay about this experience, titled Expats. Since Chin is at the festival, meeting with possible financiers for his film, I’ve made plans to see him this afternoon at the Grand Hotel.
Chin has been involved with the PIFF organization since its inaugural year, and his first film, Too Tired to Die (starring Mira Sorvino, Jeffrey Wright, and Takeshi Kaneshiro), made its Asian debut here after opening at Sundance in 1998. Three years later, when he came to the festival to promote e-Dreams (a documentary about the celebrated dot-com-era rise and fall of online convenience store Kozmo.com), Chin became fascinated by Busan’s expatriate subculture and decided to write a movie about it. In the course of researching the screenplay, the filmmaker came across an article I wrote for Salon about late-’90s expatriate life in Busan, and he and I have been e-mail acquaintances ever since.
Admittedly, Expats is not literally about my life, though I have enough in common with Chin’s protagonist Jeremy Keller to feel like it could be. As was the case for me 10 years ago, Keller isn’t sure what to do with his life in his mid-20s, so he elects to buy some time (and make some cash) by moving to Korea to teach English. Like I did, Keller finds himself charmed, bewildered, and frustrated with the extremes of expatriate life, as well as the challenges of living and teaching in an unfamiliar culture. Like I did, Keller falls in with an eclectic group of acquaintances, including an international roster of fellow expats.
Unlike my experience, Keller and his expat friends decide to buy black-market guns and rob some Korean gangsters—but I suppose that’s how movies work. Chin describes his new film as a cross between Lost in Translation and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.
In his film synopsis, Chin has described Busan as “the modern Casablanca”—a romantic comparison that has aroused some skepticism among current expats in this crowded, workaholic city of traffic jams and concrete high-rises. Still, Casablanca wasn’t a romantic city until the movie Casablanca made it into one. Movies have a way of reinventing how places are perceived, and a big reason I’m back in Busan is to get a last look at its foreigner subculture before Chin’s movie puts the city onto America’s pop-cultural radar.
As I walk along Haeundae Beach to the Grand Hotel, I can see that Busan has transformed since I left Korea to become a full-time writer eight years ago. The most notable change is an elegant white suspension bridge that spans Suyeong Bay (imagine returning to Houston to discover it suddenly has its own Golden Gate Bridge), as well as two new subway lines, one of which connects this beach with the rest of the city. Back in 1998, when PIFF was in its infancy, movies were screened in the gritty port district of Nampodong; now, in an apparent attempt to imitate Cannes, the festival is centered around a hotel-studded stretch of Haeundae Beach—which has itself gone upscale in recent years. The Haeundae I last saw was a bustling tangle of frumpy bars, bathhouses, and motels fringing a half-mile-long stretch of sand; the resort beach has now become a tidy, sanitized strip of luxury hotels and Starbucks franchises, modern-art museums, and aquariums.
For a returned expat like me, the globalized gentrification of Haeundae Beach feels a bit artificial—but I’m sure it’s a welcome sight for international film tourists, who might otherwise find themselves bewildered in this manic city of 4.5 million people. Haeundae’s cosmetic makeover is no accident: For the past decade, the city government has invested huge sums of money in the attempt to transform Busan into a hub for the Asian film industry. Thanks to the British Invasion-style success of Korean Wave films and soap operas across Asia, this investment is paying off. More than 40 Asian films will be shot in Busan this year, and tourist arrivals for PIFF (mostly from other Asian countries) have steadily increased since the beginning of the decade.
Since Wonsuk Chin is an old PIFF hand, my conversation with him is punctuated with continual introductions to other film-fest regulars in the lobby bar. With a boyish smile, goatee stubble, and a thinning crew cut, Chin looks younger than his 38 years. He puffs on a cigarette as he tells me about plans for his new film.
“Most Americans have strong cinematic impressions of Japan or China,” he tells me. “It’s easy to imagine samurai, or the Forbidden City. It’s not that way with Korea: People think of North Korean military parades—or maybe old M*A*S*H episodes—but nothing that truly represents the culture. Korean Wave films are doing well in Asia, but there hasn’t been a substantial American movie filmed here in decades. I want to change that. My movie might be an action comedy, but I want American audiences to absorb a real piece of Korea for two hours.”
“So why make a move about expats?” I ask him. “Why not portray something more distinctively Korean?”
“I want to show Korea through an outsider’s point of view, because I realize how strange this country must seem to visitors. The teacher expats who come here see Korea in a unique way. They aren’t isolated like soldiers or businessmen; they’re working right in the middle of the culture. They’re young, and they’re going through a transitional time of life. They’re more likely to throw themselves into new experiences.”
“And you think these experiences would include robbing Korean gangsters?”
Chin grins and lights another cigarette. “I’m not writing about a specific incident; I’m just exploring a possibility. But in researching the movie, I saw this as a realistic plot idea. Gangsters in Korea don’t carry guns; they use baseball bats and sashimi knives. To gun-culture Americans like Jeremy Keller and his friends, Korean gangsters must seem like an easy target if you want to make a quick buck.”
Although the IMDb.com page for Expats lists Chris Klein (American Pie) and John Cho (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) in supporting roles, Chin won’t tell me who he has in mind to play the Jeremy Keller part. Online scuttlebutt has suggested that Jake Gyllenhaal, Jared Leto, and Ryan Phillippe have been approached for the part, but Chin will only concede that he’s in the market for a well-known twentysomething Hollywood actor. “Once we cast the Jeremy Keller role,” he says, “everything else should fall into place. I’d like to shoot it in Busan next spring and debut it as the lead film next fall at PIFF.”
Chin is still curious about what it’s like for an outsider to live in Korea, and he asks me about my own experiences in Busan eight years ago. I tell him I have mixed feelings about my time here, but that I look back on Busan like Ernest Hemingway looked back on Paris—as a “necessary part of a man’s education,” an essential rite of passage in my own life. Since tens of thousands of Americans have made a similar Korean sojourn in the past decade—and since more than 6 million Americans live as expats—I like the notion that indie filmmakers are trying to capture the American expatriate experience on the big screen.
When Chin excuses himself to go attend a meeting, he asks me how I plan to reconnect with Busan’s expat scene. For anyone who’s ever lived overseas in their 20s, the answer to this question should be obvious.
“I’m going to hit the bars,” I tell him.
Indeed, if Busan is really the modern Casablanca, it’s time for me to head out and find the local equivalent of Rick’s Café Americain. Walking outside, I hail a cab and head into the city.
II. The Henry Miller School of Overseas Living for Misanthropes
I have a theory about why expatriates (and male expats in particular) tend to be so boozy and hedonistic. It has to do with the banality of workaday life and the basic human enthusiasm for vicarious fantasy.
For example, if you find life dull and you’re really into science fiction, you can dress yourself up as a Klingon and live out your fantasies at a Star Trek convention. If you find life dull and you’re really into football, you can play John Madden-endorsed video games. Would-be wizards can play Dungeons and Dragons, stymied Casanovas can surf porn, and wannabe commandos can play paint ball. Practiced in moderation, these are all healthy, normal expressions of American male culture.
If you’re a self-styled bohemian writer, however—if you aspire to live the life of a Henry Miller or a Charles Bukowski—you are by definition obligated to seek a seedy variation of authenticity. You can’t settle for video games and fan conventions. To truly embrace your fantasies, you must actively booze, brawl, and womanize until you’ve achieved something resembling oblivion. And if you don’t have the money, courage, or social cachet to do this in your hometown, moving overseas to indulge your inner misanthrope is a sensible and time-honored solution. In nearly every expat setting I’ve visited as a traveler—from Prague to Phuket to Porto-Novo—there seems to be this notion that being a writer has more to do with drinking and screwing than actually writing.
So, expat scenes invariably have plenty of writers and artists but a curiously scant quantity of writing and art. This isn’t a new phenomenon: Ernest Hemingway alluded to it in The Sun Also Rises, when Bill Gorton jestingly upbraids Jake Barnes: “You drink yourself to death,” he says. “You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.” George Orwell made a similar observation in “Inside the Whale” (an essay-length riff on Miller’s Tropic of Cancer), pointing out that expatriate writers are disproportionately obsessed with “drinking, talking, meditating, and fornicating.”
When I first arrived in Korea 10 years ago, I certainly fit into this self-deluding demographic. Frustrated by a writing career that had gone nowhere in the years after college, I threw myself into the anonymity of my new home—hitting the bars five nights a week, tenuously juggling two girlfriends at once, and pounding out stream-of-consciousness journal entries in a dubious attempt to channel Jack Kerouac. Between my hangovers and my unwillingness to embrace basic story structure, it proved to be one of the least productive years of my writing life.
It wasn’t until my second year in Busan that I learned to spend less time in bars and more time working on my prose. Freed from the bland obligations of bohemian posturing, I read more, exercised daily, and studied Korean language and culture. I was, it turned out, far better at being Rolf Potts than Jack Kerouac. My writing went into more disciplined directions, and by the middle of my second year in Korea, I was publishing freelance essays in American travel magazines.
Oddly enough, the local expat barfly crowd reacted to my modest successes with as much scorn as solidarity. Expat writers I’d never met before came across my Web site and sent me bitter, rambling e-mails; old acquaintances unironically suggested that I had “sold out” to corporate media. A teaching colleague at my junior college in Korea hounded me for editorial contacts, coolly insinuating that my work was less than authentic because I wasn’t shacking up with hookers and passing out in gutters on a regular basis. For the entirety of my first year in Busan, I’d described myself as a writer to anyone who asked; by end of my Korean sojourn—when I was actually beginning to make a decent income from writing—I’d stopped bringing up the topic altogether.
Curious to re-examine the scene that informed my first year in Busan, I’ve been balancing my days at the Pusan International Film Festival with evening forays into the city’s night life. As might be expected, things have changed since I was last here. Tombstone, a basement dive where I once did a brief stint as bartender, is now a tea shop. The Dallas, a late-night disco where I rubbed shoulders with American soldiers and Korean prostitutes, went out of business when the local Army base closed down. The only haunt I still recognize from my late-’90s Busan tenure is a university-district pub called Crossroads, so I stop in.
Before long, I’m drinking a beer and chatting with a table full of Canadian English teachers. All of them, it turns out, are in debt from college, worried that they aren’t living up to their self-perceived notions of mid-20s success, and embroiled in a love-hate relationship with Korea. This recalls my own situation 10 years ago, and I’m reminded why—beatnik pretensions aside—expats spend so much time in bars. For these young teachers, many of whom are working their first real job, life in a crowded Asian city can be alienating and stressful. Korean social expectations can be confusing, teaching hours can be exhausting, and simple privacy can be hard to come by. A place like Crossroads—with English-speaking bartenders, familiar music, and fellow expats who identify with your problems—can feel like a haven.
The Canadians tell me that the owner, Dong-ha, is hanging out at his new jazz lounge across the street, so I head over to find him. As with Rick Blaine’s cafe in Casablanca, the popularity of a given Busan expatriate bar has always hinged on the personality of its owner. When I first arrived in the city, university-district expats gravitated toward Shiva, a live-music club owned by Korean artist Taewan Guru. When Shiva was shut down for noise violations after Guru’s ill-fated “Drug Street Punk Festival” in 1997, an aspiring filmmaker named Taejoon teamed up with some neighborhood toughs and opened up a club called Nirvana. When Taejoon’s partners pocketed his investment money and went back to their standard gangster racket, the expat crowd flocked to a basement music bar called Monk—which flourished for several years until its owner, a soft-spoken jazz fanatic named Sungwhan, committed suicide by jumping off a 60-story hotel.
All those bar owners had an instinctive talent for catering to the needs of expats and exiles—but if anyone has truly earned the Rick Blaine mantle in Busan, it’s Dong-ha, who opened Crossroads nine years ago. In the ensuing time, the easygoing 37-year-old has opened up four more bars around the city, and each of them is a magnet for foreigners. This success, I think, has more to do with sensibility than strategy. Unlike other Korean bar owners I’ve known, Dong-ha doesn’t come from a world of collegiate abstractions. After dropping out of trade college, Dong-ha earned his Crossroads startup funds by working at a canning factory in Newfoundland. This working-class edge has no doubt helped Dong-ha navigate the underworld protocols of Korean bar ownership—and I suspect it also helps him identify with his clientele.
Busan’s expat-teacher scene is not, after all, populated with Ivy League grads and cosmopolitan elites. Academically inclined Asia enthusiasts generally end up in China or Japan; trust-funded New Age backpackers head for Thailand or India; educated Koreaphiles typically gravitate toward Seoul. So, for the most part, the Busan expatriate scene comprises people who think that the $24,000 a year they can earn teaching English is great money. This was certainly the case when I arrived from Kansas—and the expats I met here were people like me: graduates of no-name colleges who grew up in places like Randle, Wash., or Moncton, New Brunswick. Some of us had debts to pay off; others were rebounding from bad marriages or dead-end careers. Few of us were trained as educators or independently interested in Korean culture.
Still, I’d wager that the lower-middle-class factors that bring people to a place like Busan only make the experience more vivid—and those who stick it out a year or more return home transformed by their time in Korea (even if they originally arrived with the exclusive intention of aping Henry Miller).
I find Dong-ha setting up sound equipment. Unlike his counterpart in Casablanca, Dong-ha is not averse to drinking with customers, so the two of us take a seat at the bar and catch up on old times. Apart from getting married and expanding his businesses, he tells me, the most notable thing to happen in recent years was getting shut down and jailed on drug charges just before the 2002 World Cup, which Korea co-hosted with Japan.
Apparently, authorities had been tipped off that foreigners were openly smoking pot in a Dong-ha-owned club called Soul Trane, and a late-night police bust yielded a number of drug-positive urine tests. Dong-ha and several expats wound up getting carted off to jail for the night.
Had this happened in other parts of Asia, it would have been a fairly minor event. In Korea, though, both drugs and foreigners are an anomaly, so the story made headlines. Perhaps not grasping how marijuana works, Busan newspapers reported that expat teachers had been throwing “drug hallucination parties.” None of the positive-testing foreigners had been caught in possession of drugs, but when reporters arrived at the jail, police posed them with piles of unrelated narcotics from the evidence room. For a moment, expats were the pariahs of Busan: Parents publicly worried that their children might get turned on to drugs in their English classes; ultranationalist “Netizens” (a busybody Korean variation of American political bloggers) called for all foreign teachers to be thrown out of the country.
As happens with media hysterics anywhere, the scandal eventually blew over. Dong-ha got a fine and brief jail time; a few foreigners were deported. Soul Trane reopened, and Dong-ha resumed his plans to start new clubs in the Kyungsung University district.
When I tell Dong-ha about Wonsuk Chin’s plans to film Expats in Busan, he’s intrigued—but he tells me the movie’s release probably won’t affect how the expatriate community functions. “More people might come here,” he says, “but I think they’ll live the same way they always have.”
“Most of the foreign teachers here aren’t permanent people. I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years, and I’ve seen so many people come and go. When you aren’t permanent, you can be whoever you want, because you know you’re going home in the end. I think that’s the attraction of coming here in the first place.”
Dong-ha invites me to stick around for after-hours drinks, but I tell him I have to get up early in the morning to keep a date that’s a long time in the making.
After two years of waiting, the time has finally come for me to meet an old friend and do some indoor fishing.
III. Fishing Indoors With a Former Member of the Korean Army
Though I passed a fair portion of my Korean expat tenure sitting in bars, I spent the bulk of my time in Busan at the front of classrooms. Lee Oh, my favorite student from those teaching years, has just finished his mandatory two-year stint in the South Korean army—and I’m marking this proud occasion by taking him indoor fishing.
Admittedly, indoor fishing is probably not what Lee was fantasizing about during the months he spent on a military compound within artillery distance of North Korea—but I figure it’ll be a better activity for him than playing video games for 12 hours at a stretch, which, as a 24-year-old Korean male, is his first instinct when faced with unstructured free time.
Originally developed for elderly Korean urbanites pining for the village fishing excursions of their youth, indoor fishing became an unlikely fad in Busan about four years ago. At the height of the craze, eight different establishments competed for the business of indoor anglers. After a TV exposé suggested that indoor-raised saltwater fish might cause cancer, business largely dried up. Only one indoor fishing establishment remains in Busan, so I’ve decided to indulge my curiosity before the trend dies out altogether. My old student and I hail a taxi and head for Sea Fishing World.
I met Lee through his father, a Busan surgeon who’d hired me to help proofread a medical journal article about antiperistaltic ileostomy (an endeavor that earned me a coveted translation credit in Diseases of the Colon and Rectum). At the time I began to tutor him, Lee was a quiet 14-year-old with an affinity for Disney movies and a disinterest in the rote methods of Korean schooling. Looking back, I can’t remember what I taught him, specifically. I usually visited his house from 10 to 11 o’clock at night, when we were both exhausted from a day’s worth of other classes and tutorials. For the most part, we watched English-language videos and had aimless conversations. One time we went outside and tried to watch the Hale-Bopp comet through his dad’s binoculars. Another time we stole off to a late-night game room and played pingpong.
Like most expats who traveled to Busan on teaching contracts, I was never trained in the ways of pedagogy. Due to Korea’s ongoing drive to globalize, learning English was in vogue among the upwardly mobile middle classes, and all that was required to land a job as a teacher was native-speaker fluency and a college degree in any subject. Moreover, owners of extracurricular-learning institutes (called hakwan in Korean) weren’t required to be credentialed educators, and many such bosses hired expats less for proven teaching skills than for white skin and a presentable appearance.
Inevitably, this resulted in a weird professional environment (largely unchanged to this day), wherein expat hirelings rarely knew the distinction between teaching, babysitting, and killing time in the classroom. Amid the confusion, a fair number of otherwise-unemployable American con artists, drunks, and sociopaths landed Korean teaching jobs—a fact that is exploited every few years by the more alarmist ranks of the domestic press (a recent such episode came earlier this year, when Korean teaching experience was discovered on the résumé of JonBenet Ramsey murder suspect John Mark Karr).
Despite the seeming unreliability of Korea’s English-teacher import system, however, it seems to have largely worked out over time. Perhaps less important than actual lessons was the sociocultural exchange that happened every time a Westerner walked into a Korean classroom. Once known as isolationist, Korea is now home to a generation of college students who’ve been interacting with expat teachers since they were in grade school. Those teachers, in turn, have returned to the West with a better appreciation of Korean virtues like discipline, family, and spicy food.
In Lee’s case, my English instruction was secondary to my becoming a kind of American big brother to him. When his parents expressed concern that he was too much of a dreamer to withstand the inflexibility of Korean high school, I arranged for Lee to live with my parents and attend high school in America. Eventually, Lee was accepted into the University of Kansas, where the quiet kid from Busan bloomed into a strapping undergrad with a gaggle of international friends. In a scenario that would have been wildly improbable a generation ago, Lee has become a devout Lutheran, mastered the acoustic guitar, traveled to Mexico and Alaska, found a passion for humanitarian volunteer work, and fallen for a blue-eyed Irish-American girl (whom he will marry in Kansas City next year).
Lee and I arrive at Sea Fishing Land to find a place far more bizarre than I’d imagined. Located in a cement-walled basement not far from Gwangan Beach, the indoor-fishing room resembles a darkened parking garage that has been outfitted with an oversized hot tub full of carp and catfish. Out in the lobby, Lee and I plunk down 8,000 won each (about $8) to rent 3-foot rods, glow-in-the-dark bobbers, and golf-ball-sized lumps of crumbly brown stink-bait. We duck through a curtain into the dim fishing room, where we belly up on barstools and plop our baited hooks into the water. Mr. Pak, the proprietor, brings us paper cups of sweetened coffee and terry-cloth towels that we’re supposed to use when handling the fish. Through the darkness, I can see three other people—all of them men in their 40s—with their lines in other corners of the pool.
We eye our phosphorescent bobbers for signs of movement, and Lee tells me how he kept a daily journal in English for the entire two years he was in the army (a detail which may well count as the finest legacy of my erstwhile career in education).
“What did you think of the army?” I ask him.
“It was like losing two years of my life,” he says. “I spent most of my time making coffee for a general.”
“Well, at least you’re out now. What’s next?”
Lee thinks for a moment as he checks his hook and drops it back into the water. “I don’t know,” he says. “Get married, I guess. Certify as a math teacher. Maybe live in Mexico for a while. Learn some Spanish, do some mission work.”
I tell Lee that it’s good to be vague about the future, and we quiz each other on where in the world we’d like to travel in the next five years.
As we talk, Lee’s bobber zags in the water; he sets the hook with a twitch of the rod and pulls out a small gray carp. Cradling the fish into the terry-cloth towel, he removes the hook and returns the carp into the water. It’s the only fish either of us catches.
When I return home later in the day, I notice I have a text message from Wonsuk Chin. He wants me to meet him in Busan’s dicey Texas Street entertainment district, where he plans to shoot portions of Expats next spring.
IV. A Quest for the Musical Russian Triplets of Texas Street
I’ve been in Korea for just over a week now. The Pusan International Film Festival has finished, and Kim Jong-il’s nuke test has finally faded from the international headlines. Of the two, I’d have to say that PIFF created the bigger sensation in Busan. Provocations from the North, it seems, can’t compete with the influx of Asian film glitterati that put this port city on the map for a few days in October.
Such geopolitical insouciance is nothing new. The last time I visited, in 1999, North Korean gunboats had provoked the South Korean navy in the Yellow Sea, resulting in the first full-on naval battle between the countries since 1953. The Koreans I’d talked to that week were positively furious—but not about the prospect of war. Rather, they were upset that Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park, a national sports hero at the time, had been served a five-day suspension from Major League Baseball for fighting. At first blush, this inversion of obsession might seem skewed, but once you’ve lived here, it makes sense: In day-to-day South Korean life, North Korea feels as far away as Greenland.
This evening, filmmaker Wonsuk Chin and I are sitting at an outdoor table on Busan’s notorious Texas Street, eating street-grilled cheeseburgers across from a nightclub called Las Vegas. In spite of the identifying details, this odd little corner of the city doesn’t feel very American. It doesn’t feel very Korean, either—nor does it feel Russian or Filipino, though most of the people who come here hail from those countries. Chin plans to shoot several key scenes of his movie Expats here next spring.
Technically, this is no longer Texas Street. In 2002, just before Busan hosted a slate of World Cup soccer games, city officials attempted to soften its red-light reputation by renaming it Foreigners’ Shopping Street and installing decorative paving tiles. During the daytime it does indeed function as a shopping street, but at night it’s known for the nightclubs and brothels that serve sailors passing through the fourth-largest container port in the world.
Five hundred years ago, this area was a fishing village, which—along with the rest of southeastern Korea—bore the brunt of Hideyoshi-era Japanese invasions. In 1950, it was a haven for refugees driven south (into what was then called the “Pusan Perimeter”) by an invading North Korean army. It was during the Korean War that the businesses on this street began to cater to the tastes and whims of American soldiers—thus earning the name Texas Street. Over the years, the U.S. military presence in Busan has scaled back dramatically, and now the street’s trademark cheeseburgers are primarily sold to sailors from Russia and the Philippines. Many of the businesses here now have signs in Cyrillic, and wandering deckhands lonely for Cebu or Luzon can sing karaoke, drink San Miguel, and eat sinigang na baboy in places like Club Manila. Neon club marquees give the street an otherworldly glow at midnight, and long-legged Russian bar hostesses stand in doorways to beckon customers.
As we eat our cheeseburgers, Chin tells me that he knew he had to make Expats when he visited Texas Street for the first time. “I felt like there was something going on here,” he says. “Something that isn’t Korean or American but nonetheless is very real and bizarre, full of energy. On the first visit, I walked into a place called Club Hollywood, and the house band consisted of three peroxide-blond Russian triplets.”
“Male or female?”
“Male. And they just stood there all rigid and stone-faced as they played their guitars in front of this audience full of sailors and bar girls. You can’t make something like that up. When I wrote the screenplay, I realized that this whole scene would seem mind-blowing to an American kid like [protagonist] Jeremy Keller. Club Hollywood is where Keller first meets some of his expat friends, and later in the movie—just before they rob the Korean gangsters—it’s where they make a gun deal with a Russian named Vladimir of Vladivostok.
“Did you really meet someone like Vladimir here?”
“Not exactly, but close enough. You don’t have to embellish much. That’s what I like about this project.”
“What about the triplets? Are they going to be in the movie?”
“If I can find them. The last time I was here, they weren’t playing at Club Hollywood anymore. I asked one of the bar girls what had happened to them, and she said they’d gone to Cyprus. When I asked for more details, she told me I had to pay her money first, like she had learned how to do that by watching a movie. I still don’t know what happened to them.”
I suggest that he and I visit Club Hollywood tonight—not just to take another stab at tracking down the triplets, but because I have some history there myself. Like Chin’s Jeremy Keller character, I visited the place not long after I first arrived in Busan. And, like Keller, I was both intimidated and fascinated by what I found. My journal entry from that night hits on the fascination—and vague fear—I felt at the novelty of having drinks in a place full of Russian sailors and Korean working girls:
When I first go in it’s just me and a wall full of bar girls, but I wave them off and they leave me alone. Russians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, most of them sailors, filter in. One of the Russians, a big jolly bad-ass named Sergey, starts to bargain with a girl for his pal, a lanky kid (also named Sergey) who barely looks 18 years old. Young Sergey comes over to me to borrow a match and explains how he just got her for 200,000 won a night, two nights. Big Sergey talks about how he’s been to port in Seattle, how his town in Russia is sister cities with Astoria, Oregon. Both guys seem excited to be hanging with an American, but I start to get nervous about the whole scene and decide to bail. As I leave, I notice that young Sergey has taken off his leather jacket and is doing a wild hip-hop dance in front of the stage, wearing a maroon Harvard sweatshirt and a pair of Guess overalls cinched with a braided-leather belt.
Club Hollywood’s bar girls are now mostly Russian, but the club hasn’t changed much since that day almost 10 years ago. It still features rock-textured walls, vinyl seating booths, a tiled dance floor, a small stage, and a soundtrack of semi-listenable Asian disco music. If Chin can’t arrange to shoot scenes here next spring, he says, he intends to re-create an exact replica on a soundstage.
At the bar, he and I are joined by Natalia, a tall and lovely 40-year-old hostess from Vladivostok. It is standard courtesy here to buy 10,000-won ($10) drinks for the women if you want to talk to them, so I get Natalia a watered-down Jack-and-Coke and ask her about her life in Busan.
“I’ve been working here five years,” she tells me. “The money is better than in Vladivostok, and it’s only a two-hour direct flight. It’s not bad. I go home every three months.”
“Do you have family there?”
“Of course. But my daughter is in Australia. She’s 18, going to college.”
This seems improbable—the idea that a woman from Vladivostok can earn enough money in Busan to send her kid off to study in Perth—but Natalia doesn’t appear to be using this story as a hustle. She doesn’t press me for another drink, and she seems pleasantly surprised when Chin buys her a second cocktail and asks her about the guitar-strumming Russian triplets. She asks the other Russian bar girls and writes some names onto a slip of paper. It reads: “Nicolai. Stas. Valentin.”
“They came here from Kamchatka,” Natalia says. “Now they perform in Moscow.”
Though this is a vague lead at best, Chin seems genuinely excited at the prospect of casting the real triplets in his movie. He speaks of his film—and its authentic touches—with a sense of mission. “I started researching Expats five years ago,” he says. “I could have been making more money during that time directing Korean-language films, but I feel like the expatriate experience is a story that isn’t getting told. There’s so much dramatic potential there, in the classical sense: All these people are living between cultures; they go abroad, and their lives are never quite the same again.”
Chin is right: Life abroad has always been a transforming experience. For me, two years in Busan was a visceral education—an experience that made me into a traveler and gave me a more nuanced view of the world. Similarly, Chin’s move to New York many years ago sharpened his senses and made him into a cross-cultural filmmaker. Natalia, too—herself an expat, if in a less whimsical sense—aiming to improve her lot by working in this foreign land, even if it only means a better life for her.
I ask Chin how his movie ends. He won’t say—but he assures me that Keller will come out OK in the end.
I buy us all a third round. We salute one another with a “na zdorovie,” and down our drinks. Chin and I bid Natalia farewell and walk out to find a taxi.
This essay originally ran as four-part series in Slate, October 24-27, 2006