Fiction and Other Realities (South Korea/USA, 2018) [SDAFF 2018]

With just a cursory look at the premise, some viewers might be quick to write off Fiction and Other Realities as a sappy romance movie using music as a gimmick to detract from poor storytelling. Those viewers would be wrong. Featuring a Korean-American male lead and indie music, this movie deftly examines the struggles and joys that come along with Korean-American identity.

The protagonist, Bobby (Bobby Choy), is lovable and relatable. As he practices his guitar in the bathroom of the apartment he shares with his mother and slogs through a telemarketing job that he hates, Bobby is eking out an existence in New York City. His dreams—and the reality keeping him from them—are front and center. It would have enhanced the conflict the audience could have seen more flaws in Bobby, but his lack of flaws feels like a symptom of this being a fictionalized account of a time in the director’s life. Bobby Choy, the director and main actor, is playing a version of himself. (Indeed, Fiction and Other Realities is also the name of the first album released by Big Phony in 2005, and in the movie Bobby eventually forms a band called Big Pony.) These connections lend the movie a great sense of authenticity and substantial emotional weight). This is a very personal film, but it also carries universal themes that will resonate with viewers.

Humor comes from how this movie subverts many of the tropes of this type of film, the feel-good movie that provides a “portrait of an artist,” chronicling the ups and downs of pursuing one’s art. Bobby’s friend Billy, who is in a band on the rise, tells Bobby that he wants him to be their opening act on their upcoming world tour. “Are you serious?!” sputters Billy, like somebody who can’t believe their good fortune. It turns out that Billy isn’t serious; instead, he offers Bobby a job as a roadie. Bobby quits his dead-end job and sets off with the band, doing grunt work like hauling equipment and selling CDs.

Some of the most thought-provoking moments come when Bobby arrives in Seoul. Having spent his entire life being defined as “Asian,” as an “other” in American society, Bobby expresses that he has finally found his place, as Korea is a land where everyone looks like him. It soon becomes clear, however, that it won’t be as easy to fit in as it looks. A cab driver laments how Korean-Americans have not been taught proper Korean by their parents. Bobby lies and says that he is actually Taiwanese. The cab driver, who had previously chastised him for his subpar Korean skills, then turns around and praises him for his good Korean. When Bobby gets caught up in a crowd of adoring fans of Billy’s band, Billy—unsure how to identify his friend in a sea of Korean faces—struggles to find Bobby in the crowd. It would have been interesting to more fully explore some of these slights, but as the movie pivots to a love story, some of that is lost. We still follow Bobby as he explores Korea and his family history, especially the legacy of his late father, who supported his son’s music.

Bobby brings a photo of his father at Hongik University, and finds the spot where his father stood in the photo. There, he meets a fellow singer-songwriter, a student named Ina. It is very enjoyable to experience Korea through Bobby’s eyes, as he enjoys Korean delicacies, relaxes at a bathhouse, and generally explores the neighborhood of Hongdae, known for its indie music culture. This setting forms the backdrop of much of the movie, lending a feeling of intimacy as we explore his pocket of Seoul with Bobby, who decides to stay in Korea. The evolution of his relationship with Ina is beautiful and touching to watch as they navigate the ups and downs that come with chasing their dreams. The music (30 songs by Big Phony) is stirring without being saccharine, and it provides the perfect backdrop for a romantic coming-of-age story.

While some audiences may find the conclusion of the love story to be unsatisfying, it reflects reality. Bobby emerges from this experience stronger and more self-aware, coming into his own as a proud Korean-American man and as a confident musician. His journey was never about falling in love with a girl. His journey was about falling in love with himself.

Fiction and Other Realities is showing on November 12 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.