Grant Hyun’s Koreatown takes us into a parallel world most of have never peeked: the secret lives of “doumi” (the Korean term for a type of host/escort), where women with the necessary means have their pick of men. Literally. The film follows a young doumi by the name of Kyeong, as he spends the night with different women, sings for them at a Karaoke bar, and probably more… until Kyeong gets pushed to his limits towards the end of the night. Is this just another unusual customer request that’s part of an unforgiving profession, or will it be his personal breaking point? At the break of dawn, the ramifications might even lead to the first step on the path to redemption.
Writer/director Grant Hyun based the film on the experiences of an actual former doumi he met in Koreatown, Los Angeles, and staged the real-life accounts as a coming-of-age story, intersected with glimpses into the lives of the female customers.
“The young man explained how his job was about satisfying the customer without spoiling their fantasy: use flattery, flirtation and any other means to create the illusion of romance”, Hyun explains. “Some were looking for human connection and understanding, while others, with more specific fantasies in mind, would pay higher prices to take him to private residences. The tension between the emotional and physical demands of the women who hired him was something I knew I wanted to explore.”
As the filmmaker related in his director’s statement:
“The dynamic of the male doumi/female client relationship inspired me not just because of the gender reversal to western depictions of escorts, but also because of the ways it disrupts racial stereotypes about Asian men and women.”
Aside from many other possible references, Koreatown feels as if Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) directed a film about male Asian escorts in the Los Angeles underbelly, down to the neon-suffused atmosphere and the lightness on actual plot. Director Grant Hyun makes these stylistic and narrative choices his own, by telling a story we haven’t been told through this specific viewpoint before. The heightened aesthetic and haunting soundtrack add to a distorted sense of reality, nested in the artificiality of club life and companionship for money.
The night belongs to lovers, but also to those maligned by society who won’t show their true face in daylight. Prostitution and high-end escort services are where those things come together, as they do in Koreatown. It is as much a vampire tale as it is a Cinderella story. It is also neither of those two things.
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That’s the beauty of Hyun’s elliptical storytelling. Maybe Koreatown is really just about a woman who pays a man to pee into a cup for her. Maybe it’s so much more. Eventually, it is up to the viewer to decide what to take from it. For the director, “at its core, Koreatown is a film about loneliness and the human need for connection.” At the end, don’t we all just yearn to find some kind of connection? Any kind of connection.
Koreatown might prove to be a controversial choice for some, but that’s part of its appeal. It has also already found a number of fans on the festival circuit. Among other things, the film was selected by Gus Van Sant as a finalist for the Coppola Short Film Competition.
Grant Hyun is currently working on a feature adaptation of Koreatown, which he describes as “a coming of age story that looks at an underrepresented side of the Korean American experience, but it’s grounded in the wider American narrative of loss and heartbreak during the recession of 2007.”