by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim
Many people go to New York City to “make it there.” With the sheer number and diversity of New Yorkers, you can also find plenty of unique and delicious places to eat there, too.
The food from the city that never sleeps is central to Hungry for Love, a film looking to gain financial backing via Kickstarter. The story centers around two individuals struggling to make a living: Giovanni works as a pastry delivery driver who dreams of traveling America in a transnational food crawl, and Priscilla is an aspiring writer struggling to publish her first book while saddled in student loan debt.
When the two strangers meet for the first time, they discover a mutual passion for food, which takes them on an epic all-night dining adventure through NYC’s five boroughs. They decide to drop everything for a while as they enjoy and explore cultural neighborhoods, meet unique individuals and eat delicious food. The experience not only brings them closer together, but empowers them when facing their problems head-on.
Hungry for Love is the first feature film collaboration for writer/director Justin Ambrosino and producer Soojin Chung, both graduates of the American Film Institute (AFI). Ambrosino’s short The 8th Samurai won several awards and qualified for an Academy Award, while Chung has worked on multiple films in South Korea, including Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. She also produced the surreal Escape from Tomorrow, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival to acclaim.
Ambrosino and Chung spoke to KoreAm via email about their crowdfunding effort for Hungry for Love, as well as how food has shaped their own lives and careers. You can view their Kickstarter page here.
How did the idea for the film and story come about? What drew both of you to the story?
Soojin Chung: I came to America from South Korea in 2006 and gained about 20 pounds while living in LA. Two years ago, I went back to South Korea for the post-production of my previous film Escape From Tomorrow and reconnected with my old friends and colleagues. But shortly after the happy reunion, over Korean BBQ, they started to recommend diets, blind dates and dying my gray hair. Suddenly, I was looked at differently. Korean people were shocked and genuinely concerned about my weight, age and my single status.
Altogether, I became an un-ideal woman, and that’s when I realized how I am categorized in Korean society and what that feels like. Even when I went to the Dongdaemoon market to buy some clothes, people gave me a quick, cold look and yelled, “We don’t carry your size!” even though I am a size “medium” in America.
When I came back, I told Justin about how miserable I was feeling. He related it to his own family and their stories. In fact, had Justin always wanted to make a heartwarming love story with non-traditional romantic leads. I thought that was a story worth telling so we can understand the opposite side of the issue, especially with the overwhelming amount of beauty and fitness advertisements.
Justin Ambrosino: I remember being a child and holding my mother’s hand while we walked and some older kids would make fun of her, calling her a derogatory name because of her weight. She didn’t say anything, only held my hand tighter as we quickly walked away. I was young and confused but I could sense that she was hurt by it.
As I grew older, I began to feel her feelings, especially when we’d watch movies together, and the issue of weight would come up in some scene. When it was handled in a comedic way that made fun of it she would feel bad or uncomfortable, but when done in a more empathetic way, she might smile or even laugh herself! I knew I’d like to see her happy about it but I couldn’t figure out what to do to make that possible.
For me, I thought nothing of her weight—I cannot see her any other way but beautiful because I know her heart is in the right place. To me that is true beauty. And when I became a filmmaker, I finally found a way to do something about it—make Hungry for Love.
Who are Giovanni and Priscilla? What was the inspiration for the characters?
JA: Well, they are not your typical romantic movie leads, that’s for sure! Too many scripts put together a “smoking hot babe” and a “chiseled hunk” and we watch the drama ensue, but personally I cannot relate to those characters. Almost everybody I know feels like they are struggling to get to where they want to be. Giovanni and Priscilla are the same. They’re just regular people, good people, who also deserve a happy ending, too. So, when writing the script, I was thinking about the people I know in my life—my family and my friends. Each character is a reflection of someone close to me.
SC: I believe there is a little of everyone in Giovanni and Priscilla. For example, after sustaining an injury while I was working on a Korean film set, I came to the U.S. to restart my career. Making that transition, I had my fair share of ups and downs like everybody else, and sometimes I just needed to let it all go, to restore my strength. And that is where Giovanni and Priscilla are at in their lives. After having a bad day, they just want to enjoy themselves instead of feeling depressed. And who knows? Maybe they can find hope and confidence, or even their soul mate, who doesn’t judge them!
If you could, tell us a little about the journey the characters go on. How do they ultimately come to realize who they truly are?
JA: Giovanni and Priscilla face their own set of internal struggles. Giovanni is a shy man with hopes and dreams but lacks the courage to pursue them. The world is too intimidating for him and therefore he is content with what little he has.
Priscilla on the other hand is a force to be reckoned with. She is determined to pursue her dreams but lacks a certain positive outlook on life to achieve them. Basically, she lets the obstacles in her way get her down. Eventually, Giovanni finds the courage he never knew he had and Priscilla learns to take life day by day and be happy with what she has.
Food is so prevalent in the media and popular culture. How can food play a role in an intimate relationship?
JA: In the particular case of Giovanni and Priscilla, food is what brings them together. They are both used to eating alone. While Priscilla might be comfortable with it because she’s a bit more independent, for Giovanni it is the worst part of his day. He loves food but he hates eating alone, so eating with company is the ultimate definition of happiness for him.
On the other hand, for Priscilla, eating is a necessary habit. She doesn’t think about what she is eating, but through the experience of eating with Giovanni, she begins to appreciate food in a different way and therefore begins to enjoy life a bit more. So, by sharing time and eating at a dinner table, they each give something to the other they never had before.
How did the restaurants featured in the movie make the cut? Do they have a personal connection to either of you?
SC: In the script, Justin wrote in restaurants he loves whether he has a personal connection to them or not. Even though we’ve been going around to many places, ultimately we have not casted the restaurants yet because we would like the audiences to join us in that process. We would like to make an online campaign to choose the restaurants that will be in the movie. It is going to be fun to hear everyone’s opinion… so I encourage your readers to follow us on Twitter and Facebook and be apart of the experience! Of course, I am thrilled to have the chance to introduce some unique Korean restaurants too!
What do you notice about the different cuisines among the five boroughs? Do they point to a larger culture that is representative of each area?
JA: Imagine you are looking at Earth from outer space. Now smash that globe, and shove it into a tiny set of islands along the Hudson River. That is New York City. It’s a microcosm of the world. You can find every kind of cuisine here. And it can get more specific than your average city. While other cities might have a famous Caribbean restaurant, in one part of the NYC, known as Flatbush, Brooklyn, you can find many Caribbean restaurants, only they are called Haitian, Jamaican, Bajan and other specific Caribbean country’s cuisine.
SC: From a non-New Yorker’s perspective, I found it very interesting that every borough and every town within every borough, and every block within every town, is culturally diverse! Like in Queens, you can walk around and see nothing but Greek food with Greek signage, then turn the corner and see nothing but Korean food and signage! It’s like the city changes with one turn of the head. But in the end, it’s all New York City!
Justin, how do you think food and restaurant culture has changed, particularly in New York? What has remained the same?
JA: There is a bittersweet scene in the script where the characters are going to an Argentinean restaurant where Giovanni has great memories of eating at as a kid, but when they arrive they find out it will be closing for good the very next day. They have a “last supper” of sorts and share a moment with the chef who has mixed feelings himself about what’s happening.
You see, this is a story I hear all the time in New York. Every day a new landmark restaurant is closing. Whether it is the raising of rents, the owners retiring or the competition winning, it’s really hard to pinpoint the answer to the change, but this is NYC, change is inevitable.
With the influx of new restaurants offering farm-to-table, organic cuisines, with locally sourced ingredients, the older restaurants are put into a dilemma: change their menu and offend their regulars or stick with their menu but get passed over by new residents. I think the most successful restaurants are the ones that were originally farm-to-table, always using locally sourced ingredients and that changed their menus frequently–they stayed fresh with each generation.
Soojin, how much of an impact has food had in your life? Does this film have any personal touch for you as well?
SC: Growing up, I was never interested in food. I was an unusual kid because I didn’t ask for candy, chocolate, ice cream or hamburgers like the other children. But since I met Justin, eight years ago, I found another side of myself that I never knew existed.
When we worked on our first film at AFI together, Justin invited the crew to his tiny apartment for our first production meeting (where we were supposed to discuss all the details of making the film). But when I arrived, Justin was sweating, frying fresh shrimp, making dough from scratch—he was cooking up a feast! Then, as we ate, all everyone discussed was food and wine. It was definitely a delicious dinner, made with love and care, but after three hours of talking and eating, I wondered when the production meeting would begin! But everybody seemed to have no problem, and as the only Asian in our group, I took it as cultural differences. But along the way, I was slowly became a foodie myself and here I am.
What’s the approximate timetable for the movie?
Hungry For Love was selected for the IFP Project Forum 2013. Ever since then, we have been pitching to financiers and film industry people. Luckily, we’ve drawn positive attention, and we are running a Kickstarter Campaign supported by Sundance, IFP (Independent Film Project), Film Independent and Filmmaker Magazine.
Crowdfunding has become the opening gate to making independent films and to prove to the investors there is an audience for each film. The success of our campaign will surely convince our potential financiers and lead to us raising the complete budget. We are aiming to shoot our movie in April 2015 and delivering the final film by September 2015 so we can begin our festival run in 2016. But all this will not be possible unless we succeed our Kickstarter campaign, so it’s really up to your readers and all the people out there to make our dreams come true!
Images courtesy of Soojin Chung & Justin Ambrosino