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Meet Chris Lee

Today we’d like to introduce you to Chris Lee.

Chris, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
My filmmaking journey first began with skateboarding. At the start of middle school, after borrowing a dusty skateboard lying around in my neighbor’s garage, this little after-school activity quickly consumed my life. I loved the freedom, creativity, and individuality skateboarding offered, as an outlet to express myself by doing tricks simply on a piece of wood attached to some wheels. As I found friends to skateboard and explore our city with, bringing a camera along to our expeditions became second nature. My mother’s point-and-shoot Nikon camera now had a purpose in my everyday life. As a lot of skaters know, filming tricks and making skate videos is an integral aspect in our community.

And so, heading into my high school years, I eventually found myself spending a lot more time being behind the camera rather than in front of it. I found a deeper sense of joy and satisfaction in trying to figure out the best angle to capture a trick, and later finding that perfect song to best fit the skate video. Through making these videos, I essentially taught myself how to use various editing software and work different types of cameras. Though I wasn’t thinking much about storytelling at that time, I was just excited about the idea of filming, editing, and creating a whole new experience from just my friends and I having fun.

During these high school years, I then started to follow different curiosities and make non-skateboarding related videos: I started to bring my camera to my youth group where I would make highlight videos of our trips and events, I would be inspired by talented YouTube filmmakers who were making sketch videos and short films as I tried to do my own versions of them with friends and family. During this time, my view of creating videos broadened to something much bigger than ones strictly existing within the skateboarding community. I could feel that there was potential for something more to do with this art of filmmaking…

But it wasn’t until my senior year of high school when I felt like I truly got a glimpse of the potential filmmaking could have: thanks to independent and international cinema, I realized that filmmaking could go much deeper and even speak to our emotions and shared human experience. Growing up, I always thought movies were to simply entertain audiences with big spectacles and explosions, but it wasn’t until watching films like “Fruitvale Station” (2013, dir. Ryan Coogler) and “Short Term 12” (2013, dir. Destin Daniel Cretton) when I experienced something truly life-changing. For the first time, I experienced how a film could have the power to empathize with others, can bring a deeper perspective of the world we live in, and can offer a language and space to process complex thoughts and emotions that are often difficult to express merely through words. In other words, the films I was drawn to helped me feel less alone and gifted me with tools to live through difficult times in my life.

So, by the time I graduated high school, I decided to follow this new passion of filmmaking by applying to film school. After three years of community college and one rejection, I eventually transferred to USC film school where I had the opportunity to make student films, meet filmmakers from many different walks of life, and got to soak in everything I could that would help me be a better filmmaker and storyteller. Having now just graduated college, I am excited for what the future has in store as I hope to continue learning more about the reach and impact film can have.

Has it been a smooth road?
Coming from making skate videos where I wasn’t required to think much about storytelling, to transitioning into making narrative short films, I suddenly realized I needed to find and express my own voice somehow. Growing up as a quiet and shy introvert, I was afraid to reveal much of myself as I easily fell into the insecurity that I was not someone worthy to share my voice and that no one really would care nor be interested in what I had to say. These insecurities became even more tangible during my time at film school feeling like it was my turn to step up to the mic, yet I was unsure if I felt like I had anything really valuable to say.

But as I began to reflect on the films that have impacted me the most, I realized that all those films were deeply personal films for the filmmakers. They reflected something honest about the filmmakers’ lives and point of view, which had to be created with a certain amount of vulnerability that would allow others to see them as they were, which in my case, was the very thing that spoke to me and moved me very deeply.

Having made a certain amount of short films, I realized that the more personal I was in my films, the more people responded and connected with them, later telling me how much it meant to their own lives. So, in that regard, the biggest struggle for me along the way was to find that courage in allowing myself to be vulnerable in my films, to believe that my voice is valuable and worth something, and that what makes an artist special is embracing what is unique about them in how they see the world… which are all things I try to remind myself of each day.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
As for me, I find myself most interested in stories that explore family relationships pertaining to the Asian American experience. I find that a lot of who we become as human beings is heavily influenced by our family or our lack of family growing up, especially because it is often in this environment where we learn what love and connection means. I feel like there is so much to explore in these personal and intimate spaces where people reveal their true colors and can be a place where the deepest love and pain can be felt. I think that my interest in exploring these family relationships through film is a way to better understand who I am and to help myself love my family more.

Also, growing up as an Asian American, I constantly felt a sense of disconnect between what I saw in movies and on television, compared to my lived experiences. Watching stories that primarily come from a straight, white, male point of view, I had a difficult time trying to love and embrace my own culture, language, and even appearance. As an aspiring filmmaker, I hope to offer stories about people and communities that don’t often get the spotlight or have their voices heard. I hope that film can be used more as a mirror to reflect a reality that is as deep, as beautiful, and as inclusive as the world we know and aspire to live in.

Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
I’ve heard a lot of people describe Los Angeles as a city with many cities. Every few miles, you can look around and see different languages written on different store signs, eat from a diverse selection of restaurants of many cultures, or be hiking a mountain one moment of the day and be walking along the beach just a few hours later…

But at the same time, you have to sit in traffic in order to get anywhere around the city, and you can also be driving along expensive apartments seeing people walk their well-groomed dogs on one block, and then make one turn to find an entire row of tents where people experiencing homelessness find shelter in the streets. So, to me, Los Angeles feels like a microcosm of America itself, representing stories of people from all walks of life, living close together, yet so apart.

Also, as a Korean American, it is particularly interesting knowing that Los Angeles is the city with the largest population of Koreans living outside of Korea. I find it fascinating that in the heart of Los Angeles, the Wilshire Grand Center stands as the tallest skyscraper in the west coast, which illuminates the Korean Air logo (the symbol of the Korean flag) as a beacon for Korean immigrants, and hopefully all immigrants, who have struggled and fought to redefine what home and family means to them.

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Image Credit:

SK Ohga, Phil Lee

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