BUSAN, South Korea—I've been in Korea for just over a week now. The Pusan International Film Festival has finished, and Kim Jong-il's nuke test has finally faded from the international headlines. Of the two, I'd have to say that PIFF created the bigger sensation in Busan. Provocations from the North, it seems, can't compete with the influx of Asian film glitterati that put this port city on the map for a few days in October.
Such geopolitical insouciance is nothing new. The last time I visited, in 1999, North Korean gunboats had provoked the South Korean navy in the Yellow Sea, resulting in the first full-on naval battle between the countries since 1953. The Koreans I'd talked to that week were positively furious—but not about the prospect of war. Rather, they were upset that Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park, a national sports hero at the time, had been served a five-day suspension from Major League Baseball for fighting. At first blush, this inversion of obsession might seem skewed, but once you've lived here, it makes sense: In day-to-day South Korean life, North Korea feels as far away as Greenland.
This evening, filmmaker Wonsuk Chin and I are sitting at an outdoor table on Busan's notorious Texas Street, eating street-grilled cheeseburgers across from a nightclub called Las Vegas. In spite of the identifying details, this odd little corner of the city doesn't feel very American. It doesn't feel very Korean, either—nor does it feel Russian or Filipino, though most of the people who come here hail from those countries. Chin plans to shoot several key scenes of his movie Expats here next spring.
Technically, this is no longer Texas Street. In 2002, just before Busan hosted a slate of World Cup soccer games, city officials attempted to soften its red-light reputation by renaming it Foreigners' Shopping Street and installing decorative paving tiles. During the daytime it does indeed function as a shopping street, but at night it's known for the nightclubs and brothels that serve sailors passing through the fourth-largest container port in the world.
Five hundred years ago, this area was a fishing village, which—along with the rest of southeastern Korea—bore the brunt of Hideyoshi-era Japanese invasions. In 1950, it was a haven for refugees driven south (into what was then called the "Pusan Perimeter") by an invading North Korean army. It was during the Korean War that the businesses on this street began to cater to the tastes and whims of American soldiers—thus earning the name Texas Street. Over the years, the U.S. military presence in Busan has scaled back dramatically, and now the street's trademark cheeseburgers are primarily sold to sailors from Russia and the Philippines. Many of the businesses here now have signs in Cyrillic, and wandering deckhands lonely for Cebu or Luzon can sing karaoke, drink San Miguel, and eat sinigang na baboy in places like Club Manila. Neon club marquees give the street an otherworldly glow at midnight, and long-legged Russian bar hostesses stand in doorways to beckon customers.
As we eat our cheeseburgers, Chin tells me that he knew he had to make Expats when he visited Texas Street for the first time. "I felt like there was something going on here," he says. "Something that isn't Korean or American but nonetheless is very real and bizarre, full of energy. On the first visit, I walked into a place called Club Hollywood, and the house band consisted of three peroxide-blond Russian triplets."
"Male or female?"
"Male. And they just stood there all rigid and stone-faced as they played their guitars in front of this audience full of sailors and bar girls. You can't make something like that up. When I wrote the screenplay, I realized that this whole scene would seem mind-blowing to an American kid like [protagonist] Jeremy Keller. Club Hollywood is where Keller first meets some of his expat friends, and later in the movie—just before they rob the Korean gangsters—it's where they make a gun deal with a Russian named Vladimir of Vladivostok.
"Did you really meet someone like Vladimir here?"
"Not exactly, but close enough. You don't have to embellish much. That's what I like about this project."
"What about the triplets? Are they going to be in the movie?"
"If I can find them. The last time I was here, they weren't playing at Club Hollywood anymore. I asked one of the bar girls what had happened to them, and she said they'd gone to Cyprus. When I asked for more details, she told me I had to pay her money first, like she had learned how to do that by watching a movie. I still don't know what happened to them."
I suggest that he and I visit Club Hollywood tonight—not just to take another stab at tracking down the triplets, but because I have some history there myself. Like Chin's Jeremy Keller character, I visited the place not long after I first arrived in Busan. And, like Keller, I was both intimidated and fascinated by what I found. My journal entry from that night hits on the fascination—and vague fear—I felt at the novelty of having drinks in a place full of Russian sailors and Korean working girls:
When I first go in it's just me and a wall full of bar girls, but I wave them off and they leave me alone. Russians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, most of them sailors, filter in. One of the Russians, a big jolly bad-ass named Sergey, starts to bargain with a girl for his pal, a lanky kid (also named Sergey) who barely looks 18 years old. Young Sergey comes over to me to borrow a match and explains how he just got her for 200,000 won a night, two nights. Big Sergey talks about how he's been to port in Seattle, how his town in Russia is sister cities with Astoria, Oregon. Both guys seem excited to be hanging with an American, but I start to get nervous about the whole scene and decide to bail. As I leave, I notice that young Sergey has taken off his leather jacket and is doing a wild hip-hop dance in front of the stage, wearing a maroon Harvard sweatshirt and a pair of Guess overalls cinched with a braided-leather belt.
Club Hollywood's bar girls are now mostly Russian, but the club hasn't changed much since that day almost 10 years ago. It still features rock-textured walls, vinyl seating booths, a tiled dance floor, a small stage, and a soundtrack of semi-listenable Asian disco music. If Chin can't arrange to shoot scenes here next spring, he says, he intends to re-create an exact replica on a soundstage.
At the bar, he and I are joined by Natalia, a tall and lovely 40-year-old hostess from Vladivostok. It is standard courtesy here to buy 10,000-won ($10) drinks for the women if you want to talk to them, so I get Natalia a watered-down Jack-and-Coke and ask her about her life in Busan.
"I've been working here five years," she tells me. "The money is better than in Vladivostok, and it's only a two-hour direct flight. It's not bad. I go home every three months."
"Do you have family there?"
"Of course. But my daughter is in Australia. She's 18, going to college."
This seems improbable—the idea that a woman from Vladivostok can earn enough money in Busan to send her kid off to study in Perth—but Natalia doesn't appear to be using this story as a hustle. She doesn't press me for another drink, and she seems pleasantly surprised when Chin buys her a second cocktail and asks her about the guitar-strumming Russian triplets. She asks the other Russian bar girls and writes some names onto a slip of paper. It reads: "Nicolai. Stas. Valentin."
"They came here from Kamchatka," Natalia says. "Now they perform in Moscow."
Though this is a vague lead at best, Chin seems genuinely excited at the prospect of casting the real triplets in his movie. He speaks of his film—and its authentic touches—with a sense of mission. "I started researching Expats five years ago," he says. "I could have been making more money during that time directing Korean-language films, but I feel like the expatriate experience is a story that isn't getting told. There's so much dramatic potential there, in the classical sense: All these people are living between cultures; they go abroad, and their lives are never quite the same again."
Chin is right: Life abroad has always been a transforming experience. For me, two years in Busan was a visceral education—an experience that made me into a traveler and gave me a more nuanced view of the world. Similarly, Chin's move to New York many years ago sharpened his senses and made him into a cross-cultural filmmaker. Natalia, too—herself an expat, if in a less whimsical sense—aiming to improve her lot by working in this foreign land, even if it only means a better life for her.
I ask Chin how his movie ends. He won't say—but he assures me that Keller will come out OK in the end.
I buy us all a third round. We salute one another with a "na zdorovie," and down our drinks. Chin and I bid Natalia farewell and walk out to find a taxi.