Award-Winning Director Christina Yoon Talks Motherland

Christina Yoon is an award-winning writer, director, and editor. After graduating from NYU Tisch, Christina worked in South Korea directing branded content for Johnnie Walker and in creative development for Korean music videos and web dramas. As a TV writer, she has most recently written for Apple TV’s Pachinko. Her new film, Motherland, won the prestigious Katharina Otto-Bernstein short film grant.

Christina joins us on Close-Up Culture to tell us more about Motherland.

You mention in your directors’ and producers’ statement that you spoke to Korean adoptees around the world. How much did this research impact the creative choices on this film?

For many Korean adoptees we spoke to, the process of trying to find their birth families was often frustrating, convoluted, and time consuming. We learned about adoption records having missing or incorrect information, or simply that certain protections for the birth families blocked adoptees from gaining access to basic information about their personal history. This informed the way we shaped Leah’s journey in the film. We also came to understand just how emotionally vulnerable and internal the search was for many of the adoptees. It’s an experience requiring such inner strength and self-healing that only they can truly understand having lived it.

One of the most powerful scenes is the closing image of Leah’s name in the guestbook. How important do you think it is for adopted children to know and understand their culture?

After having conversations with adoptees, I came to understand how important it is for adopted children to form some kind of connection to their culture. Without understanding where they came from, the disconnect between how they look and the environment they’re raised in can sometimes cause feelings of shame and alienation. It’s a part of who they are, and they should be given the chance to connect and feel proud of the culture they came from. The degree to which they want to connect with it is ultimately their choice, but I think it’s important for adoptive parents to give them the opportunity.

Was there a significant creative or symbolic choice in choosing a funeral as the meeting place for Leah?

I knew in writing the script that I wanted Leah to land at a big family event like a birthday, wedding, or funeral for many reasons. Symbolically, I wanted the setting to reflect life, death, and rebirth. I also wanted Leah to be faced with a sensitive family setting with unfamiliar cultural customs to understand just how much emotional and physical distance she has had to travel to reach her goal. I ultimately chose a funeral because I felt Leah was facing her own inner death and rebirth in a sense.

Did the script evolve much or did it click in one go?

The basic framework of the script was there from the beginning—I always knew it would follow Leah’s search, starting with the adoption agency and ending with finding her family. I knew that the film would end with Leah not being able to connect with her mother but somehow connecting with a sibling. A lot of the other details of the story kept evolving over many drafts, especially after speaking with adoptees about their experiences.

The brother is seen as the link between Leah being able to communicate with her family. Was there a significant symbolic choice in this decision?

Leah’s brother reflects a more open-minded and globalized younger generation in Korea. Some adoptees we spoke to shared that their biological siblings and half-siblings were more open and enthusiastic about connecting with them (though not always the case), and would often serve as translators between them and their birth parents who could not speak English. As someone who is completely innocent in Leah’s situation but a witness to it all, he is the bridge and the hope—for a younger generation altering the cycles of generational trauma.

The world is becoming a more interconnected place by the day, thanks to the internet and globalization. However, there is still such a strong desire to know your roots. Do you think there could ever come a day where personal culture could blur the same way consumer culture has? 

The internet and globalization are certainly blurring these lines more and more, but understanding a culture takes effort, time, and a willingness to truly learn. This requires respect and care, so I’m not sure it can happen as quickly and easily.

Are you working on anything else after this?

I’m writing and developing a psychological thriller/horror feature about a Korean American girl, delving into religious trauma. It’s a bit more personal to me, but similarly to “Motherland,” it’s also an emotional family journey.

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