The ‘melting pot’ narrative in the United States has been popular for decades, asserting that American culture is inherently multicultural because of how many American citizens immigrated from other countries around the world.
But this can sometimes make it seem like all this multicultural influence simply happens over time as naturally as a tree growing from seed to maturity.
However, in reality, it takes real effort to introduce specific cultural elements to the American mainstream, and it can take even longer for the United States population to accept those various cultural elements.
As an example – we can look at how German culture, for one, was very gradually integrated into the broader American cultural sensibility.
Originally emigrating from Germany in significant numbers in the 1700s, the Pennsylvania Dutch, a wide-reaching community of German immigrants, mainly lived in their own settlements.
Slowly, the community integrated itself into American culture, and, for the most part, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that German professionals and artists were able to earn prominent positions as politicians, designers, filmmakers, etc. Miles van der Rohe, Douglas Sirk, and Ernst Lubitsch are notable examples.
Even then, the second World War contributed to the persecution of German-Americans even in the 1940s and 1950s.
To bring this all to the topic at hand, there are still many Americans who are working hard to bring their own cultural perspectives into the mainstream.
Woonyea Han: telling stories from an early age
Han has gone on to become a prolific and successful performing artist, working on notable films such as Fix Me, which has won more than 20 different awards to date, including the most prestigious Best Actress in a Fantasy Film at the Actors Awards Los Angeles. Han also took home accolades for her directing and screenwriting. In addition to Fix Me, Han also acted and directed Mood of Days, Save the Earth, and Sleeping Beauty. These have also been selected and victorious in other festivals.
2019 and 2020 were jampacked, successful years in Han’s acting career. It all started with her role in Korpino which was featured at the Short Circuit Pacific Rim Film Festival in 2019 and screened. After, Han played the lead in the film The Image, directed by Farbod Ardebili who is a Sundance fellow and has begun receiving awards from various international festivals including Indiex Film festival. Lastly, Han managed to seek the role in the film Quarantine2020, which took home nearly seven awards from the Hollywood Blood Horror Festival.
Between long periods of shooting, Han also has performed in commercials for Experian and Xbox. She even had a cameo in the music film Downfalls High by Machine Gun Kelly himself. Momentum is continuing for Han in 2021. She casted one of the main roles for the indie feature future film called Akika which is currently in development.
Sharing Korean culture
So how can artists from other countries around the world who now live in the US introduce aspects of their heritage and culture with the American mainstream, not just with individuals who are already familiar with that culture or who already belong to that culture?
For Han and many other successful multicultural artists from many different disciplines, the best and simplest answer is to gain the largest audience possible.
The more people who see your work, the more people who will pay attention to those distinctive cultural elements.
One of the most recent examples of this process being enacted is the critically-acclaimed film Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho, which earned the Best Picture Oscar in early 2020.
Not only was this movie impressive in its own right, but the director, the cast, and the crew, were very proud to also be sharing a very small window into what Korea is experiencing today, albeit an exaggerated version of very real issues.
Likewise, Han isn’t shy about the ultimate purpose of her career. She has a great deal of motivation to become a major force in mainstream Hollywood.
“I want to be the best in Hollywood. I want the world to see my success and Hollywood is the ultimate stage. I have a mission to share the beauty of Korean culture with the world. Hollywood has created films that are a mix of Asian cultures, but I would like to do something more authentic to Korean culture specifically.”
While racial and cultural representation in any and all movies is one important step toward creating diverse media, Han is speaking here of how important it is to tell Korean stories as well, not just cast Korean actors in stories that place their focus elsewhere.
This is where everything comes back around to storytelling. It’s the stories themselves that invite viewers to engage with cultures other than their own.
Presenting the Korean identity to the world
Our conversation with Han brought up a specific and unique component of Korean culture that many Americans may not be familiar with.
This concept is han, not to be confused with the family name of today’s guest.
In essence, han is a term without a direct English translation that describes a feeling of grief, resentment, and sadness. It has also been described as a feeling of being less-than-whole.
Some feel that han is an inherent aspect of Korean identity, while others, Han included, attribute the sentiment to Korea’s colonial and post-colonial identity, especially in reference to the Japanese colonization of Korea as well as the split caused by the Korean War.
“Han has become our post-colonial identity. Our history is full of other countries wanting our land and our people. As a culture, it has affected our mental, emotional, and spiritual view of life. When I am acting, I can draw on it very naturally, without intention. That’s why, after seeing my performances, people usually say I act on deep emotional instinct.”
Han is confident in her ability to use this concept during her performances and more generally as a way to infuse her artistic work in any medium with a Korean sensibility and emotional resonance.
A unique artistic process
Of course, it would be a mistake not to mention Han’s unique artistic process, a process that was inspired by a very successful and well-known Korean filmmaker.
Specifically, we want to focus on Han’s short film, The Moods of Those Days, which she wrote, directed, filmed, and starred in.
According to Han, this holistic approach to filmmaking was directly inspired by Sangsoo Hong.
“I felt that who I was just naturally flowed in and out of that film. The satisfaction of handling all components of production comes from the style of the famous Korean director, Sangsoo Hong. This type of intuitive process is, in my opinion, the most fun as an artist. I can live in that moment and act purely as a character.”
For those who haven’t worked in the entertainment industry, it’s important to point out just how difficult it is to take on more than one major aspect of the filmmaking process, let alone several aspects.
In particular, it is very difficult to perform in a piece while also directing it. It slows down the overall process considerably since each bit of footage needs to be reviewed right after it’s shot, whereas a director could typically review the footage while it’s being recorded.
Meanwhile, having written the original script for the short, Han had an intimate understanding of the source material and exactly how she wanted everything to play out.
For this project specifically, Han needed total creative control to tell precisely the story that she wanted to tell.
Advice for other international performers
Last but not least, we would like to share some advice that Han wanted to give to other artists and performers who are looking to move to the US and succeed in their fields.
More specifically, she had advice for performers and artists who are originally from Asia.
“One word: English. Hollywood is currently looking for Asian actors. We have so much potential in this industry, but the biggest struggle is the language. Besides language, I would say don’t give up! Take small steps. Little by little, the door will open for you. This is a challenging endeavor, but it’s worth it!”
Overcoming a language barrier is no small task, but it does indeed open so many doors, both within the context of performance as well as throughout daily life here in the States.
Multicultural artists have so much to share with American audiences, and their stories won’t be heard unless members of the American public take the time to listen.
The next time you have the opportunity to engage with a story that comes from a culture you’re not overly familiar with, we encourage you to pay careful attention and let all of these different voices be heard.