San Francisco native Steve Lee makes his silver screen directorial debut in Korea with his first feature film The Way Back. The movie stars rookie actor Yoo Seon Il and actress Park Grina (King Geunchogo and Devil) and centers on the themes of grief, friendship, and love. Four friends – Seon Il, Kang Il, Hong Ju, and Min Chul – struggle to find a way to continue living after their friend Sang Yoon is murdered. The Way Back is actually based on director Steve Lee’s true story. The year 2007 was an emotionally tough period for Lee; he lost four important people in his life consecutively. His uncle and both his grandmothers passed away, and his closest childhood friend was murdered. Steve Lee confessed, “My uncle and grandmother died holding my hands and seeing them cold and unmoving was emotionally traumatizing. I came to Korea to escape and find a new life for myself.”
Steve Lee got his foot into the film business in an unconventional way. He had a steady well-paying job as a manager for a business to business sales company, and he didn’t study film in college. While he always had interest in the area, his parents refused to let him study the craft and pointed out as “only something rich kids do.” He continued to help his friends produce music videos and films at their company. He soon wanted to try his hand in directing and made the leap of faith to come to Korea to pursue his new dream.
Although he lived his entire life in San Francisco, Lee is fluent in Korean. He stated that his parents emphasized the importance of speaking both Korean and English as he is Korean-American, not fully Korean nor totally American either. Lee also said, “I’m frustrated how Korean-Americans come to Korea and simply teach English. As Asian-Americans, we were fortunate enough to have been educated under the American education system that fosters creativity. We should be working jobs that utilizes this skill the best.”
Additionally, Steve Lee spoke fondly about working with Koreans. “In America, while everyone on set is hard-working and dedicated to the project, we all go our separate ways once the day is over. However, the staff in Korea is a bit different. People stay later to help out even when they weren’t getting paid for it, and they hang out with each other.” Lee also showed much attachment to his cast and crew. The entire film was produced with only $50,000, a relatively low budget for a feature film. As a result, most of the money went to renting equipment, and the staff worked without pay. While he couldn’t pay them, Lee made sure he always bought them lunch/dinner. Buying food has a special connotation in Korean culture. The process of eating and talking with one another over a meal allows the people to bond and build relationships. Lee admitted, “We couldn’t film one scene because I didn’t have enough money to buy them a meal as a thank you. Everyone was willing to shoot the scene, but it felt wrong to me because I couldn’t express my gratitude.”
To people of Korean ancestry, Lee recommended, “If you want to work in Korea at one point in your life, make sure you study the language and the culture.” To understand and depict Koreans and the Korean mentality better in his movies, Steve Lee is constantly studying everything about Korea.
Despite being a low budget film, The Way Back successfully portrayed the dynamic emotional relationships between four friends as they felt a sense of guilt for the accident. Rookie actor Yoo Seon Il plays protagonist Seon Il, who leaves on a trip to find his peace after his best friend is murdered. While the film did not specifically depict Seon Il as the reason for Sang Yoon’s death, the audience can insinuate that he was involved.
The Way Back also marks rookie actor Yoo Seon Il’s silver screen debut. Yoo met Steve Lee by chance when his friend called him up to ask if he wanted to work as a movie extra for a short film. Since then, they’ve been acquaintances and have worked on numerous projects together. He expressed his frustration for not being able to show his best and has admitted that Lee scolded him numerous times for his acting. When asked what his dreams were, he answered, “I want to be like actor Lee Soon Jae, someone who’s been in the industry a long time.”
The Way Back premiered in theaters throughout Korea April 7, 2011.