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James Choi: Made in Chicago

May 27, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Benjamin van Loon

Production still from Choi's 'Made in China.'

Chicago‚Äôs immaterial appeal is what makes it especially attractive to artists and filmmakers with an innate ability to extract meaning from monotony. Part of this appeal is explained by Chicago’s hard-working, international reputation, and this is originally what brought 5 year-old James Choi and his family out of South Korea to the capitol of the American Midwest. Growing up in Chicago, Choi was able to internalize the city’s aesthetic and integrate it with his industrious, South Korean background. For better or for worse, the synthesis of these things eventually drew James out of Chicago in 1992, where he matriculated at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA – just a few minutes outside of LA.

LA is sunnier and more malleable than its Midwestern counterparts. Unaffected by foul weather and unrelentingly planar topography, the people in and around LA are able to dream on their own terms. It’s a city of romantics. James studied Political Science at Pepperdine. Though he entertained some extra-curricular political interest and considered himself an idealist, he says that, “simply living/being in LA made it hard not to be drawn to the most idealistic career there is – film.”

While some of Choi’s draw to film could be explained in terms of proximity, it’s no question that once the filmmaking undertow bites, it can be hard to fight the current. However, living in a city teeming with other aspiring and often aggressive actors, screenwriters, filmmakers, producers and directors presents a challenge for idealistic and uninitiated filmmakers, which Choi considered himself to be after graduating. In spite of his idealism, he says, “it’s easy to get lost in the big ocean that is the film industry.”

By the early 2000′s, after 10 years of hard work, Choi soon became disenchanted with the relentlessness of the Hollywood filmmaking experience. Instead of giving up on film, like many would have done, Choi found his niche producing for the digital world. He began covering red carpet and press events for what was then Ifilm.com (which now redirects to the pseudo-tabloidal ScreenJunkies.com). For those familiar with Internet entertainment in the early 2000′s, Ifilm.com was a video entertainment website active in the days before YouTube dominance, and was later purchased by Spike.com. Choi produced work for both.

Production still from Choi's 'Made in China.'

During Choi’s stint with Ifilm and Spike, he met the Duplass Brothers, the New York duo who wrote and directed the sleeper hit, The Puffy Chair, a low-budget feature about two, Pennsylvania-bound brothers. Choi was inspired by their story and became fascinated with the “mumblecore” genre of filmmaking, which prides itself on low budgets, non-professional acting, often improvised scripting, and a healthy dose of creative idealism. Choi calls on Hannah Takes the Stairs, Mutual Appreciation, and Quiet City as other movies representative of the genre.

Inspired by the Duplass brothers’ bravado, and 10k budget, Choi assessed his own resources and set out to contribute to this growing independent movement. He summarizes this do-it-yourself ethic as being founded on the idea of creative freedom. “My relationship to independent films,” Choi says, “represents freedom [...] Freedom from the Hollywood system. Freedom to create without restrictions. Without censor.”

This lack of restriction led Choi to create his now award-winning film, Made In China, which tells the story of a (not surprisingly) idealistic young inventor who flies to Shanghai in an attempt to fully realize his project. The film, which cost a mere 26k and was created with a cast of seven (a director, two actors, two producers, a sound operator and a line producer), has gone on to win five awards from the film festivals at SXSW, Oldenburg, Chicago International and Newport Beach. It has since been selected for distribution by IFC Films, ITunes and the Sundance Channel.

After Choi’s work brought him everywhere from LA to DC to China, in 2009 he received saddening news about his father. Again, for better or for worse, it was Choi’s family and his father’s sickness which brought him back to Chicago. While he enjoyed some “minor victories” in LA, Choi decided that, as a city, Chicago hosts a diverse set of “opportunities to make a mark in a smaller market, but still have great accessibility to talent.” Choi asks, “why can’t Chicago be a hub for film like NYC or Austin?” Thus, rather than sitting and wondering about it, Choi has since set out to actually do something about it.

Production still from Choi's 'Made in China.'

Since Choi has officially relocated to Chicago, he has continued to stay immersed in the world of film. His latest projects have been short films, including another international work called, With Love, From Bangkok, which features Jackson Kuehn, with whom Choi worked on Made in China. Bangkok is scheduled to premiere at the Cannes Short Film Corner in May of 2011. Aside from this and other short works, Choi’s recent feature production, Joint Body, which was shot near St. Louis, in Alton, IL, will premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival in April of 2011. Choi is also working on another project with Judy Krant, who directed Made in China, which he describes as, “Thank You For Smoking meets The Last Days of Disco, set in the world of late-90′s daytime talkshows.”

Like most creative agents, Choi also teaches production classes at DePaul University and Flashpoint Academy, where he is able to integrate his first-hand experience with a healthy dose of industry know-how. While Choi considers the nascence of these two programs to be both an advantage and a disadvantage, he is excited to, “empower young people with voices to tell their stories through film.”

From Chicago to LA to DC to China and back to Chicago again, James Choi and the diversity of his work stands as a testament to the stolid, independent and hard-working ethic that makes him a true Chicagoan. As they say, Chicago is the city that works, and Choi is one of the many local filmmakers proving this ethic firsthand.

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