Stitching Together Triumph, Struggle, and Happiness

Kyung Lee uses film to shed light on how ordinary people live in present times.


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Photo by George Csicsery

Filmmaker Kyung Lee is a world away from where she grew up but very much at home in one of the oldest live/work lofts for artists in Oakland’s Jingletown neighborhood.

Growing up ethnically Korean in Japan, she longed for a diverse environment and decided to pursue studies in the United States with all its multiculturalism. After finishing a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Keio University in Tokyo, she earned a master’s in theater arts at San Jose State University. Lee moved to Oakland and  became a film editor after stumbling upon a local community of independent documentary filmmakers. She has worked as a post-production supervisor and editor on numerous documentaries and been an editor and post-production manager a national independent TV channel.

“I got my start as an assistant editor to the Bay Area documentary film editor Jennifer Chinlund. She is one of the people I owe my career to. I also consider filmmakers Gemma Cubero del Barrio and George Csicsery as my mentors,” said Lee, a  filmmaker who has reputation as a versatile editor and adept technician.

In her Ford Street studio, Lee starts her day by making coffee then heads to her computer to start editing, using Adobe Premiere Pro. “Organization is the key to editing a long-format project with voluminous footage. I usually do not use any tangible materials; everything is stored digitally.”

Lee is drawn to projects that shed light on how ordinary people live their lives in present times.

“I love working on films that stitch together moments of triumph, struggle, and happiness. I believe that any story can be extraordinary if it’s told exceptionally, which is the hardest part,” she said.

Lee’s work tends toward thought-provoking socio-political exposé and/or illumination of character. For instance, her directorial debut film in 2014, TELOS: The Fantastic World of Eugene Tssui, focused on Tssui, the architect behind the Tssui House, aka “The Fish House” in Berkeley. The project has been viewed as visionary and controversial.

Lee also edited the film Homecoming directed by Gemma Cubero del Barrio about two women who return to Puka Puka, a tiny atoll in the Pacific where they grew up. They re-experience the unchanged, unique island way of living while discovering a dramatically changing landscape  due to climate change and modernization.

And in September 2019, Lee edited Ottomaticake, a film about a cheesecake maker/punk rocker struggling to keep his business going in Honolulu’s Chinatown, where drug dealing and police corruption are rampant.

“The film encompasses many themes that are relevant nationwide such as homelessness, gentrification, and real estate speculation. It’s a sweet tale of a baker whose entrepreneurial spirit and creativity inspire viewers,” Lee said. 

Lee also edited the documentary film Tokyo Hula, working with director Lisette Flanary, which began screening  in 2019 and explores the juxtaposition of Japanese and Hawai’ian culture in their shared love for hula against the backdrop of economics, tourism, and big business. 

Most recently, Lee has been producing and directing a project on homelessness and the housing crisis in the Bay Area by investigating the real estate industry. “The project reflects the current political climate of exploitation of vulnerable tenants by landlords, which mirrors the way in which the landlord-turned-president is governing our country. By inquiring into the mindset of unscrupulous landlords, I am hoping to illuminate the depth of human greed and the limits of capitalism,” she said.

In her work as a filmmaker, Lee simply hopes for people to take the time to experience it. “Nowadays, it is asking a lot for people to spend one to two hours to watch an independent film. How they receive that experience is not up to me.”

For more information and to view clips, visit KyungLee.com