Expat director aiming high

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Mar 19, 2013 - 19:50
  • Updated : Mar 19, 2013 - 19:50

Expat film director Chris Norlund has completed several shorter projects in Korea, but he is now looking to make his full-length debut.

In his search for funding his first feature, he says he has had good feedback from producers who have seen his short films, including the most recent “Into Pieces.”

“Lately I’ve been in high spirits because I really think it’s going to happen this year,” he said.
Chris Norlund

It has been a long, winding road for Norlund, who has an unusual background. He was one of about 3,000 babies taken from Vietnamese orphanages to developed countries after the Vietnam War in a military exercise called Operation Babylift, something he only really learned about in university.

“I spoke to the nun who ran my orphanage and 99 percent of the babies in my orphanage died. ... I’m really happy to be alive, I really am,” he said.

Unfortunately, his adoptive family life was not stable, and he changed families and lived in several different cities. After funding himself through university, he joined the U.S. Navy in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks with hopes of becoming a pilot, but he was medically discharged from the officers’ cadet school after a serious injury.

He was then invited to study at Brown before eventually teaching in Asia, at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the Catholic University of Korea and now Hanyang University.

“One of the main challenges growing up in the U.S. for me was ... I grew up in redneck kind of cities and I used to get bullied nearly every day,” he said. “I still have a lot of anger about that. I probably wouldn’t have grown up wanting to be a filmmaker (otherwise).”

But he does also have good memories, such as when he acquired U.S. citizenship at age 8. When he came back to school a classmate read out a “welcome to America” speech and the other students in the school all made cards for him.

“It’s a really nice memory, that there are really good things about the U.S. I moved about a lot, but that particular school, in that city, was a lot better than where I ended up going to high school,” he said.

“America is supposed to be a land of immigrants, but it really varies depending on the cities. The American father I had was always in and out of work so we moved around many different cities. A lot of those places are ghost towns now.

“This is the challenge when I’m writing: How do I put all these experiences into that?”

He has been working on several scripts for his next project, one about the senior hierarchy between two brothers in the police force, another based in the near future about a man who tries to fool a genetic test in order to get married. But Norlund’s view of storytelling is that at heart there are no real new stories.

“I asked my professors when I was at school, ‘How do I write a new story?’ and they said, ‘Well, even Shakespeare didn’t write new stories. The thing is you tell your version of that story and that’s what will make that special.’”

He says that whatever story he makes, they always have a similar style. This is true of the two recent shorts, “Deception” and “Into Pieces.”

Both were shot in Korean, which Norlund said was a challenge as it was his fourth language.

Another challenge was logistics. While he uses professional actors, the rest of the crew were student volunteers. That meant he had to do much more of the organization, which would often throw up unexpected challenges, as he experienced during the making of “Into Pieces.”

For example, he had to film some scenes in a motel. Although Korea is full of them, finding one to film in was hard.

“Getting the hotel is a trick, because everyone thinks you are making porn,” he said. “And we couldn’t film any exterior shots because they didn’t want us filming any of their guests.

“It’s similar with nightclubs. They say ‘You can use it but not between these hours because we have a lot of married men that come.’

“We shot the scene in the first take and it was crazy violent, because the actor was really choking him. He was really killing him.”

He said that he was unhappy with the lighting, but after such a full-on first take it was hard to go again. Another tricky scene showed the protagonist hiding from customers browsing in a convenience store.

“The whole scene is two cameras and as we are moving around the two cameras are having to be re-positioned for the shots. That kind of stuff, that’s where you have to plan it so well.”

Norlund is hoping to show “Into Pieces” at a few festivals in Korea, and seeking funding for his full-length debut. Find out more at his production company website at

By Paul Kerry (