Jennifer Yuh Nelson‘s first live-action feature, the young-adult sci-fi movie The Darkest Minds, is in theaters through 20th Century Fox from August 3. Nelson previously gained critical acclaim for her career in animation. She made her feature film directorial debut with Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), which earned more than $665 million at the worldwide box-office as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, and directed the franchise’s successful follow-up Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) alongside Alessandro Carloni. Prior to her directorial career, Nelson lent her talents to a variety of DreamWorks Animation pictures, including as head of story for Kung Fu Panda (2008), for which she also directed the two-minute hand-drawn opening sequence. She also was a story artist on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002) and Madagascar (2005). Born in South Korea, Nelson and her family moved to California where she attended California State University, Long Beach receiving a BFA in Illustration.
There was a bodyguard outside my door. I peered out my hotel room peephole, seeing the smartly dressed older man scanning the empty hallway with the precision of a Korean Terminator. I watched him tap his earpiece just like they do in movies, grunt an acknowledgment that Director Yuh was where she was supposed to be, and return to looking singularly badass.
Animation directors don’t usually rate bodyguards. In real life, our worst threats are carpal tunnel or eye strain, things against which bodyguards provide no protection. In real life, we don’t wear gowns, spackle ourselves with stage makeup, or prepare speeches for hundreds of strangers in fancy hotels in foreign countries. But this wasn’t real life. This was a publicity tour for my latest movie.
January in Seoul was freezing, the kind of cold only humid places know. The Han river was actually frozen across for the first time in years. I was born in Seoul but was always a stranger, having only visited a few times since I left with my family at age four. Each of those visits had been like this, a tour encased in a surreal cosplay bubble. K-pop idols gleaming while waving gestures of Korean hearts, giggling students taking selfies in front of others taking selfies, a blur of color sweeping by outside a rushing car window. This fractally expanding city was something I barely touched. So this time I’d done something different. The tour was finishing here in Seoul, and I paid to keep my room for a few extra days. Once the dancing panda costumes and carpets were rolled away, my mom was coming.
I remember my very first trip leaving Seoul as a kid. We were a gaggle of six, my mom and dad, my grandmother and us three girls struggling with all our suitcases. My mom was the only one with the rudiments of English. Despite that, she had been fearless, going through the many hurdles of ticket kiosks and gate changes at the airport, dealing with security and immigration and confusing signs.
My mom took care of everything, because she had to. And it’s easy to rest when there’s someone watching out for you. While she was diligently making sure our plane was actually headed for Los Angeles, I felt secure enough to play with the little koala toy the stewardess gave me, and stare at the friendly old couple across the aisle, the first white people I’d seen outside TV.
When mom was peeled away for extra screening at a stopover, she told me she was scared of what would happen to us, her whole family disappearing into a foreign crowd beyond a security barrier. Afterwards, when she was cleared, she rushed around a corner to find us all huddled together, waiting for her like a bunch of lost ducklings.
In the U.S., life happened and my mom had few opportunities to travel. She had made a couple trips back to see family, but it had been 15 years since the last visit. This would be the first time we’d been in Korea together since I was four.
The day my mom arrived, I was wrapping up the publicity tour. It was all a jet-lagged blur and I found myself stumbling back to my room holding a taekwondo uniform with my name embroidered on it, and several autographed and glitter-bombed albums from a K-pop band. Mom was dutifully whisked to my room by the Korean Terminator and the door was snapped closed behind her.
I gave my mom a hug and felt how small and cold she was in her thin Southern California cardigan on this freezing Seoul January night. She hadn’t slept once on her long flight, since she was traveling alone and was worried about missing an important announcement or the landing. I put her to bed right away and broke out the heavy coat with a panda on it I’d been given to wear at a photo op. I put it on her bag and turned out the light.
The bodyguard was gone and the schedule was empty, but the company hosting the tour graciously offered a car. They knew my mom was there and Koreans take moms very seriously. Besides, since we were essentially tourists, they didn’t want us to get into trouble. Once, in a second tier Chinese city under similar circumstances, I and several coworkers mistakenly walked into a brothel while our guide was distracted. That is another story, but it made me grateful for the extra care the company here was providing.
Mom wanted to see her old neighborhood, so we headed towards the Blue House. She had grown up in the shadow of the capitol building, long before the traffic barriers and heavily armed guards. Back then, she and her friends used to play on dirt roads, the guards on parade horses waving hi to them just outside the gates. She saw the shape of the street from the car as we drove, but the shops and houses were, of course, unrecognizable.
She pointed out her old elementary school where she and her brother played, and curiously it was much unchanged. Schools rarely have money put toward them, so the facade and main building, along with the front entrance she’d walked through so many years ago, were repainted but intact. Only a sprawling addition bloated out the campus on all sides.
We went to the mountains flanking the neighborhood, white granite speckled with green and houses. She spoke of a favorite teacher she’d had, who’d lived nearby. When the teacher got sick, the entire class walked to visit her. The teacher had not been wealthy, but she had gotten up to greet the kids, and purchased ice pops for each of them. My mom said she remembered how her teacher had been sweating from her illness, her traditional dress patched and worn, but smiling because her kids were so happy.
We continued up those mountains, stopping at a lookout center near the top. My mom said how she used to think these mountains were like Everest, so tall and spanning the world. And now, as we stood by the information sign, next to the slow mail box where tourists could send themselves letters to arrive a year later, she said the mountains had shrunk somehow. Now they looked to her like hills.
Later, on the plane, I wrestled our bags up the stairs. I got her settled in her seat and pointed out where the bathrooms were. I listened to the announcements and diligently made sure that the plane was indeed heading for Los Angeles. My mom watched me do all this. Then she relaxed. She was fast asleep before the wheels left the ground.