“To Be a Good Director Is To Be a Good Listener”: Jun Hee Han on His Student Short Film Showcase Winner Uncle
The shattered illusions of childhood innocence are comedically contrasted with a run-down Seoul porn theater in Jun Hee Han’s short film Uncle. A graduate from UCLA’s MFA program in film directing, Han had an unlikely catalyst for his filmmaking career. After studying philosophy as an undergraduate at Rice University in Houston, Texas, Han was tapped for mandatory military conscription in his birthplace of South Korea. Feeling disconnected from his heritage while growing up in the U.S., his time in the army ignited a passion to tell stories connected to his home country—an artistic pursuit that directly resulted in Uncle, which he made while attending UCLA shortly after his mandated military service was fulfilled.
The short film follows a young girl who lives in the suburbs with her well-meaning grandfather, drifting between their idyllic home, Taekwondo classes and the occasional post-martial arts fried chicken joint. Though she excels at the sport and receives ample attention from her grandfather, she craves the attention of her estranged father Yonghan, an alcoholic who remained in Seoul to run the family’s failing porn theater. Sensing his granddaughter’s malaise, he decides to take her on an extended visit to visit him—with the added intent of checking up on how his son has been running the business in his absence. While the porn theater has settled into disrepair, everything else has seemed to turn up in Yonghan’s life: he has a supportive, beautiful girlfriend, he is no longer drinking and has stayed in relative physical shape. One thing he has failed to rectify, however, is his relationship to his daughter. His shame surrounding their separation has caused him to goad the girl into referring to him as her “uncle” so that his new girlfriend does not discover his failings as a parent and a person. Uncle is one of five winners of the 2022 Student Short Film Showcase, a collaborative program from The Gotham, Focus Features and JetBlue that is available to stream via Focus Features’s YouTube channel and offered in the air as part of JetBlue’s in-flight entertainment selection.
I asked Han a few questions over email, and he provided insight on his Korean military service, the personal (though not autobiographical) roots of this film and his enduring fondness for comedic filmmaking.
Filmmaker: What led to your decision to pursue an MFA in film directing at UCLA?
Han: I didn’t major in film or the arts in undergrad. I studied philosophy, but I always loved films and TV shows, and I had a knack for writing. I never really had the guts to pursue the arts when I was younger, and I think I was suppressing the urge to pursue it for a very long time.
The shift in my attitude came about when I was serving in the South Korean Army. I have South Korean citizenship, and by law, I had to serve in the Korean military for about two years. I had grown up a good chunk of my childhood in the U.S., and I could never see myself living in Korea as an adult. I imagined my mandatory service would be a temporary and short stint in Korea. However, serving in the military changed all of that. There were so many stories I wanted to tell about Korea, and I kept writing stories based on/about Korea or Koreans in my notebooks. For some reason, I felt like storytelling was a calling I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I mustered up my courage and applied to a couple film schools in the U.S. and Korea, and I was lucky enough to get into UCLA.
UCLA’s Film Directing MFA program was such a meaningful experience for me. It was grueling and tough, but so meaningful. I learned that to be a good director is to be a good listener. I also learned that you should strive to make work that people will remember, not merely consume. These might seem like mere platitudes, but it really takes a master teacher to help you take these statements to heart and act upon them. I am so grateful for my mentors and professors I met there, and I want to thank Nancy Richardson, Becky Smith, Gina Kim, Phyllis Nagy, Sheryl Lee, and April Shawhan for shaping me into the filmmaker who I am now.
Filmmaker: What inspired your film Uncle’s story and its characters?
Han: My parents didn’t really have the best of relationships growing up—their relationship has been a tumultuous one for as long as I can remember. Recently, my father has been struggling with alcoholism. For a moment, I thought, “My god, I don’t think this man has ever felt true love.”
Then I wondered, “What if my father found true love at a much younger age?” Both of my parents worked when I was younger, so I spent a good chunk of my childhood with my grandfather. I could see a scenario where I would be raised by my grandfather in the suburbs, but my father would be left alone in Seoul, where he would have the space and the privacy to find someone he’d truly love.
The film is a personal story, but it is in no way an autobiographical one. It’s inspired by people that I deeply care about and find deeply funny. My family found the film hilarious. I hope the audience finds the film funny, too.
Filmmaker: The word “uncle” has so many interesting uses and meanings in this film. What compelled you to pursue the nuance of that word—particularly how it’s used in Korea—in this story?
Han: I find inspiration for my stories from the people who are close to me—like my families or friends or the people I date. I also tend to have a good memory of people’s behaviors and what they say. But people are never simple, right? People may lie to others, and people can be in self-denial about who they are. And I thought it would be interesting for a character to use an intimate word like “uncle” to deny and deceive who they are. At the same time, I didn’t want the film to be an indictment or judgment of someone. I tried to piece together the good and bad moments of each person that appears in the story, and I hoped I would find meaning in the process.
Filmmaker: The characters have a very dynamic chemistry. How did you come to cast the film’s actors?
Han: I don’t have a particular process when I cast adult actors, but when I cast child actors, I have specific rules, and I ask specific questions. For one, I never ask kids to introduce themselves during the auditions. It’s even difficult for an adult to introduce themselves, and I think it’s ludicrous to ask a child to come up with an eloquent way to introduce who they are. Instead, I ask them, “Do you have a best friend? Can you share what kind of person they are?” At first, it may seem the kids are just describing who their friends are. But at the end of the day, most kids end up talking about themselves.
So when I asked the questions to Lee Seo Jin, the actress who was cast for the role of the young daughter, she simply said, “I don’t have a close friend.” Everyone in my casting team could sense the honesty and vulnerability in her voice, and we decided to cast her immediately. I learned so much from working with Seo Jin—she was such a self-assured, mature, and smart actress. And I think other adult crew and cast members felt the same way, too.
Filmmaker: Finally, what felt interesting about juxtaposing the experiences of Yonghan’s young daughter with the porn theater that her family has passed down between generations?
Han: When I was growing up, my grandfather used to run a small clinic in a grimy, run-down part of Seoul. And right behind his clinic, there was a run-down mall complex that housed a porn theater. When I would walk into my grandfather’s office, I would get a full frontal of the porn theater billboard, which had an image of a tightly dressed woman moaning.
A few years back, I visited my grandfather’s clinic as an adult, and I saw my grandfather seated behind his desk, right in front of the porn theater billboard. At that moment, I wondered about the person who runs the porn theater, and I imagined they must have a family, too. And I thought their family wouldn’t be much different from mine.
I wrote characters loosely based on my family members, but placed them in a porn theater environment. It was an absurd juxtaposition, but when the film was finished, and when the audiences were laughing, I felt so relieved. I think life up-close feels and looks like a drama, but when you take a couple steps back, it’s often a comedy. I wanted to make sure the story captured moments of levity, and the porn theater helped us strike that balance. For me, that’s why writing comedy is so much more interesting than writing a drama. I think so much of adulthood is filled with self-denial that it’s hard to have a clear portrait of who you are and the people around you. Comedy gives you that buffer between you and the life that you live, and it provides a place to reflect (more) clearly on who you are and the world you are part of.