Walter Lew's parents are doctors and when Lew decided not to apply to medical school after his pre-med years at Hampshire College, his Korean parents nearly had heart attacks. What then, they asked, did he want to do?
"Become a poet, a filmmaker, a storyteller or simply all of the above," he said.
Since the day he decided to change his major from pre-med to creative writing at Brown University, the Baltimore-born Lew has come a long way. His poems have won him the New York State Council on the Arts' Poetry Fellowship in 1982, and his work has also appeared in the latest Norton's anthology, New World of Literature. Most recently he was named to receive a $20,000 interarts grant from the NEA for a new work.
Between free-lancing for CBS Television as a producer and working as production manager for independent filmmakers, Lew has managed to create an innovative film piece, "Movieteller: Kogi-Eso," ("Over There"), which opens Thursday at the Inner City Cultural Center as part of the Los Angeles Festival.
Lew's film, "The Movieteller," revives the forgotten tradition of the pyonsa, or movieteller, using collages of American pop music and excerpts from old American movies.
Pyonsas are Korean storytellers who were popular in about the 1910s in Korea, who provided translation of foreign films. Sitting off to the side of the stage, they would translate and play all the actors' parts in the movie. Pyonsas became so popular, they were treated as celebrities and sometimes influenced the contents of the movies until the profession died out in the '30s, when sound replaced them.
In Lew's film--which he helped construct and edit with this production in mind--a lonely old pyonsa , feeling useless and empty, comes to settle in the United States. But, one afternoon, he encounters a mermaid, (footage reshot from "Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid" and "Submariner") who, in gratitude for his hospitality, leads him down to a cinematic undersea realm. There, he is granted a chance to recapture his previous glory when the mermaid asks him to salvage and narrate an old feature film based on Korea's favorite classical romance, "Ch'unhyang Chon."
"Ch'unhyang Chon" takes place in 18th-Century Seoul and concerns the courtship between the beautiful daughter of a former geisha and a nobleman who goes off to take the equivalent of a civil service exam--which in Korea has a very powerful and prestigious status. In his absence, Ch'unhyang remains faithful to her betrothed despite a cruel mayor's torment.
While presenting his movie, Lew sits between the audience and projection screen, giving live, simultaneous narration and storytelling his own movie, as a pyonsa .
Lew, 34, and his main collaborator, Lewis Klahr, a noted New York-based collage filmmaker and animator, use Korean dancers and musicians, recorded classical and pop music, poetry readings, subtitles and cartoons to make this film an unusual experience.
"We thought the Ch'unhyang story was visually boring," Lew said. "Another traditional story with undersea imagery allows us to use elements we thought were interesting. The cartoon, for example."
To do this movie, Lew met a real pyonsa , who is a taxi driver living in Seoul.
"He told me the pyonsas were so powerful in their days, police informers frequently caused shows to be halted and the pyonsas arrested for their anti-colonist polemics," Lew said.
Unlike past pyonsas, Lew uses live and taped music with a script, much of it in verse, and introduces his audience to a variety of conflicting and enhancing imagery.
For Lew, the project was an ideal opportunity to explore and experiment with new expressions for his poetry and Korean tradition. "I felt if you put a poet between the film and the audience, the poet regains his control of imagery," he said.
While there are few Asian-Amerian filmmakers and even fewer Korean-Americans in the industry, Lew said he would like to be referred to as a filmmaker and not focus attention to the fact that he is a Korean-American filmmaker.
"I would like to be recognized for my aesthetic abilities, rather than as being a Korean-American," Lew said.
His films have received positive reviews, at premieres in New York, Minneapolis and Berkeley.
"This is the first time a movie like this will be shown in Los Angeles," Lew said. "It is a film for people who are ready for something different, something old and new. It's a film not only for Koreans, but also for everyone with an imagination."