This week I watched (and flipped my lid for) Teddy Tenenbaum and Minsun Park’s terrific horror short Koreatown Ghost Story. In fourteen minutes, Tenenbaum and Park create a compelling history, haunting atmosphere and an irresistible mythology. The film’s currently in development to be a feature, Tenenbaum tells me, and they’re on the festival circuit with the short now, having just held their world premiere at Grimmfest and getting ready for their North American premiere at Panic Fest soon.
Koreatown Ghost Story stars Margaret Cho (who also executive produces) as Mrs. Moon, a mother and acupuncturist who invites her son’s childhood friend Hannah (Lyrica Okano) over for an acupuncture session. What unravels is unpredictable, strange, funny and very scary.
I had the great luck to speak on the phone with Cho about her role in the film, and I was quickly blown away by the depth of her knowledge and her boundless love for the horror genre. Cho is best known for her incisive stand-up comedy – as well as her work in film and television, and as a musician, author and fashion designer! – so to discover that she’s got the same gut-deep infatuation with horror that drives all of us here at FANGORIA was a delight, to say the least.
When I asked Cho what drew her to Koreatown Ghost Story in particular, not just as an actress but as a producer, she told me she really loved the script and especially the diversity of its story.
“I've always been up to do horror films, but I haven't done that many. It's probably the genre that I watch the most and I really get into, but at the same time there aren't a lot of innovations in it and it's not diverse, unless you're watching horror from other countries. The diversity in American horror isn't the best. So the fact that we're doing an Asian American horror, I think is really exciting.”
She adds that Tenenbaum and Park are gratifying creative partners because of the way their storytelling invests in Asian American horror. “They create this feeling of our stories being horrifying, because they are. It’s really about how Jordan Peele looks at Black history as a perfect analysis of horror. Horror is a great way to embody the truth, and embody our social construct of fear… I think that as a minority, we understand the unnamed fear of existing in society, and we’re really important arbiters of this kind of culture, whether it’s interpreting horror for ourselves, or understanding that these genres are not specific to race, but are very good at amplifying the idea of racism.”
Once we started talking about her love of horror, Cho really opened up. Although, as she says, it’s always been her most-watched genre, she’s been especially diving in during the pandemic, and one South Korean television series stands out in this deeply weird time we find ourselves:
“Most recent, I would say that I really love Sweet Home, which is almost a K-drama of horror, but it’s the definition of post-apocalyptic – it elicits some emotions about the pandemic, too. There's the paranoia of other people, there's this thing that's outside that you don't understand what's happening. There's a lot of monsters that are taking different forms that could be like variants. It’s really scary, but it's also the classic horror story where the protagonist finds his strength within, which is really what horror is about. You want to see somebody dig deep into their heart and survive this nightmare, and the best horror does that.”
When we got into her favorites – a challenging question for any horror fan – she had a lot of answers: “ghosty” movies, found footage, body horror, Halloween and the “entire series” of Friday the 13th. “I love horror with kids, because kids freak me out.” She listed lots of Asian horror films: The Untold Story, Ju-On, Ringu, the original Dark Water – “which ultimately became a true story with Elisa Lam.” Like the truest of genre purists, she adores a lot of pre-‘70s titles: Séance on a Wet Afternoon, The Haunting, anything Hammer or giallo. But when it comes to her absolute favorite, that’d probably have to be Brian De Palma’s Carrie, although she acknowledged that what’s most special about Carrie transcends genre.
“Carrie is kind of everything, but what it really is, is this person – that's been victimized by all these people – finding her strength, but then Carrie becomes an antihero, too. So it’s really important to me.”
Cho’s role in Koreatown Ghost Story has some definite humor to it, although the film isn’t exactly a horror comedy, and she pointed out that sometimes the very idea of horror can be funny:
“You have to have humor – like, the Cenobites are really funny. Pinhead, and the lady that’s just a throat,” she laughed. “They’re almost like California Raisins. It’s just funny the way it looks like one of the Cenobites is wearing sunglasses, and I think it’s just that their eyeballs are black, but I’m like ‘why are you wearing sunglasses in hell?’”
Her Koreatown Ghost Story costar, Lyrica Okano, also has remarkable comic timing in the film, but then she delivers true terror in the moments that call for it. “Lyrica is so wonderful, because I think it’s hard to be a horror actress, because it’s hard to have the limits of your voice and also to humanize the screaming. It takes a very special skill to be good in horror. You can’t pull out of the story, you really have to be afraid, and I think she’s so good at showing that, but she’s also great at being funny, and she’s also great at being empowered, and this is all in the scope of the story. It’s very important for her character to have that journey of empowerment. So I loved working with her, I think she’s a unique and tremendous talent, and we really had a blast doing this film.”
With Cho’s horror enthusiasm and insight, it seems like the Bam Bam and Celeste writer/director might be interested in tackling a horror film next, right?
“I would love to write and direct a horror movie. I think our disrespect towards the indigenous people of America brought forth so many things of ‘your house is built on an Indian burial ground’ kind of horror, but what it really is, is this kind of metaphor for 'we've raped and pillaged all of the people who stood where we stand now, and how do we receive our comeuppance for that?' So I think that's the starting off point for so much. Colonialism is the original bringer of horror because it's the guilt that is manifesting from all of the privilege that we have taken…
“I'm just really passionate about it. I think that there's so much to horror and I think that there's so much to excavate and unpack when it comes to horror. It's the deep cultural significance of these nightmares, because they're just these ways for us to process the pain that we've endured and to give a face and voice to our traumas. So I'm really into it.”