by Zoe Stagg
photography by Chris Fortuna
“These women were in a room all day and had sometimes 30 partners. It’s disgusting what these women went through… They would just dispose of them like dogs.”
The old equation, allowing everyone to collect on their famous 15 minutes, needs updating. Whether fame or infamy, math done in the absence of Reality television forgets to carry the one.
In this reality-to-art metamorphosis, Jamie Chung stands out. You might recognize her from The Real World: San Diego, but chances are you lost her to the characters she’s played in projects since, in everything from The Hangover II to the upcoming Knife Fight and Premium Rush with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon.
Jamie was a student at UC Riverside when she was cast on The Real World. Overnight, she went from being the model student her Korean parents approved of, to one that put that role in jeopardy. Or it could have, if it wasn’t for the lessons her parents taught her long before classrooms and teachers. “Oh man. When I told my parents the first fear was, ‘Please don’t drop out of college.’ My mom never had a chance to go to college, my dad didn’t graduate from college, and for them it was a sign of status. What they thought I was going to do with my degree, I don’t know. But for them it was a milestone.” Growing up in San Francisco, her traditional parents worked hard to make sure that she had every opportunity, but also that she didn’t lose sight of where she came from.
“It was so important to them not to lose the Korean culture, and to learn the language, and to instill that into our lives in the States. It was a huge priority – and it was something that, as a child, I constantly battled. I wanted to be Americanized, I wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to recognize my parents’ heritage.” She rebelled as teenagers do – but in a seemingly less defiant way: she went to work. “When I turned 15 I applied for a work permit, and my sister and I’ve been working since we were young. Our first jobs were shitty, but they paid for the things that we wanted.” What seemed like just cool bags and sneakers at the time were actually lessons in disguise. “My parents worked so hard for things like citizenship, and it’s really taught me a sense of values and I appreciate them for it.”
Jamie has been paying back that solid start by reversing the roles. The opportunities her parents worked so hard to give her, she’s giving back. “They hadn’t really traveled anywhere. It was just Korea and then straight to San Francisco and that’s it. It’s kind of been my goal to make them world travelers. When I was filming in Shanghai, I flew them out for two weeks for the Chinese New Year. I’ve brought them out to L.A. or to Hawaii… It’s just that they’ve been working their entire lives and not had the chance to get out.” And the culture she resisted as a kid is more important than ever. “As you get older, you learn to appreciate and actually identify more with it, because it’s something to be extremely proud of.”
It was that cultural identity that made her role in Eden such a passionate one. Playing a Korean-American teenager sold into sex slavery, her performance won special jury recognition for her performance at the SXSW Film Awards. The movie is based on a true story by human rights activist Chong Kim which makes it even more compelling. “I’m just happy that people went out – even after reading the description of the film, they had the courage to watch it. It’s important that we do hear these stories because it’s something we need to recognize as a society that actually goes on. And if we don’t recognize it then there’s not a way of alarming these young girls from getting into those situations.” The woman whose story she tells participated in the movie, making the truth starker still. “Working with Chong, who is the person the story is based on, and speaking with her – this is even a very toned-down version. We made it very PG so people don’t turn away, because you need to watch the reactions. It’s a very important story. It’s happening in our neighborhoods and it’s happening in the United States. When people thing about sex trafficking, they think about third-world countries, and it’s actually happening right here.”
The cause is right at the intersection of her American and Korean cultures, and it’s one she’s continuing to shine a light on. “It’s an ongoing theme that I’ve been very passionate about. When I was sent to Korean culture camp to learn about the heritage and to be with other Korean-Americans, one of the things I learned at this summer camp was about ‘comfort women.’ They were young girls who were tricked into these sex cults and they were forced to service Japanese soldiers right before they went out to the war front. These women were in a room all day and had sometimes 30 partners. It’s disgusting what these women went through. And when the American troops were close to taking over the territory, they would kill them. They would just dispose of them like dogs. There are only a few survivors left, and this is the last year that they’re protesting the Japanese embassy in Korea because they still have not gotten a public apology. The Japanese government refuses to acknowledge that it happened. Chong is actually part of an organization that helps fund these women and gives them healthcare, because they ended up having lots of health problems because it was ignored, this horror they were going through in these ‘comfort homes.’ And it’s something that’s ongoing. I want to take a trip out to Korea with Chong to meet these women. Whether it’s showing up at a charity event or speaking about it like this, it’s something that I want to get more involved with.”
Social media, for better or worse, is allowing people to be involved in similar causes. For the better, in that snippets of information get passed around quickly – for the worse, in that people take it at face value without putting in work of their own. “There’s the [Joseph]Kony experiment, that was a cause shared worldwide. But it also makes people lazy. Kony, in terms of awareness, did a great job, but people jumped on it without doing the research. It can be a very powerful thing, but it can also be kind of dangerous.” But on the other side of her social network, yin and yang, “Another example is Obama being elected. It was all a very young generation coming together and using the social networks and the internet to make an impossible thing happen. It’s extremely powerful, and I don’t knock it. I just wish that people would use it more for the good than for the evil.”
Politics tends to attract those polar elements. Jamie doesn’t mince words on the political subject matter of Knife Fight. “Campaigns are dirty. They’re ruthless. The movie is based on Chris LeHane’s adventures of being a campaign advisor to Bill Clinton, and Al Gore and John Kerry, and it really gives you the inside scoop of how it goes down when they’re managing damage control.” Whoever is on the ballot, a huge consideration in this election year, that one name is far from the whole picture. So much more goes into making a candidate. “Whether it’s our tax dollars or foreign policy – and I mean, my God, some of them are idiots – it really is a team of people. I mean for example, Romney? Really? What does he know about foreign policy? How is he going to help our country? I hope that this movie sparks an interest to do more research of these political figures running for these elections.”
If there’s one reality she’s sure of, it’s the hyper-intense, barely-controlled chaos of the streets of New York City, especially as seen from a bicycle like in this summer’s Premium Rush. Even the created environment of a movie set can’t make you immune from that speed. During filming, action stopped and Joseph’s bike kept going, right through the back window of a taxicab. Getting ten very real stitches for that piece of fiction, the wound “was gnarly.” But for someone who started out playing herself to turn around and give of herself as others, flirting with this danger is a small price to pay for truth. New York is like the real world. “It’s so many people and so much energy, and so much going on. If you’re not careful, you can get run over by cab or a bus or someone on a bike or a woman with a stroller. It’s fast-paced, you’re on the edge of your seat, and you’re entertained. It’s a perfect reflection of how the city is, and I love it. I love it here.”
stylist Nonja McKenzie @ opus beauty
hair Tony Chavez @ jed root
makeup Suzie K.
location LOFT los angeles, ca