Episode 98 │ The Model and the Mediatic World (SOUTH KOREA)
Updated: Sep 22
"And I realized, 'Well, why can't I pursue film? Just go for it. Like, why not? There's nothing stopping me except for the lack of trying.'... If you aspire to do something, whatever it is... just do it. Just force yourself to do it, because life is not easy, and it can be very long, and you don't wanna live a life thinking, 'Well, I never went for it.'" (Horea, Episode 98)
It's been a while since I've had someone from Canada on the show (shout-out to NBee from episode 54), and as a Michigander it's my pleasure to once again welcome a Canadian as the guest on Young, Gifted and Abroad! Horea is a filmmaker, graduate film student, plus-size model, multilingual person, content creator, and all-around artist based in Seoul, South Korea. I happened to find her on Instagram in late 2021 or early 2022, around the same time that I found Kirsten from episode 90, but I didn't realize they knew each other until after I released that episode. Knowing their connection gave me the courage to invite Horea to be on this podcast, and thankfully she was very receptive to my invitation! I was so excited that I watched just about all the videos on her YouTube channel to help me prepare for the interview! We talked about the motivations behind her multitudinous creative pursuits, and what it's been like for her as a master's student and model in Korea during the ongoing "panoramic" (one of Horea's numerous laugh-to-keep-from-crying nicknames for the pandemic).
Horea grew up in a loving and close-knit immigrant family in Ottawa, Ontario (the capital of Canada), and her interest in cinema began when she was very young. From watching horror films with her mom on Sunday afternoons, to pulling clips from YouTube and using Windows Movie Maker to edit together "these weird, elaborate little movies that nobody else could understand but me," to making recap videos and mini vlogs with her friends at school, film has always been one of Horea's strongest passions. However, pursuing it as a profession seemed unattainable, like an "impossible dream". Not knowing what she wanted to do with her life, and opting to stay in her hometown for convenience's sake, she attended the University of Ottawa where she majored in communications, did part of her studies in French (through uOttawa's French immersion stream), and minored in world cinema as an extra treat.
After graduating in 2018, Horea secured a solid job with great benefits, but she felt like she was in her 20s and neither experiencing life beyond working full-time, nor meeting new people outside of her bubble. She wasn't growing as a person, and she decided that pursuing a graduate film degree in South Korea would be the perfect solution to that. Horea had been impressed by Korea's rich "mediatic world" for a long time, and the spring semester she spent in Seoul taking undergraduate film classes at Korea University in 2017 were "the best five months of my life." She'd also visited other countries such as Italy and France (including the 2019 Cannes Film Festival) and knew she wanted to live abroad. Additionally, studying cinema and doing projects within the Ottawa film scene made her want to commit to that field more deeply. So she applied as a prospective graduate student for the Korean Government Scholarship Program, a.k.a. the Global Korea Scholarship, which she'd heard about from a girl in her dorm back at Korea University.
From Horea's summary of it, the KGSP application process seems to have been rigorous and slightly vague—requiring much initiative on the candidates' part to understand the requirements and figure out what would make their applications as compelling as possible—but after "months of torture" she was named a recipient. She returned to Korea in 2019, and the KGSP funded her master's program in film at Konkuk University in Seoul (her current university), as well as a year of intensive Korean language study at Chungnam National University in Daejeon before she started at Konkuk. She and her cohort have been pillars of support for each other: entering the KGSP experience together, enduring the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic together, and now weathering the highs and lows of international student life at their respective Korean universities. In particular, Horea chose Konkuk because of its status as a well-respected institution, because of its prime location within Seoul, and because it was one of the first schools that popped up when she initially started looking online for film programs (in fact, a prolific director currently works there).
All of the instruction for Horea's program is in Korean, and although the administrative team for international students at Konkuk has been "lovely" about checking in with students and working hard to make Konkuk a rewarding experience for them, cultural and communication barriers in the classroom remain a struggle for Horea. Back when all her classes were on Zoom, that struggle was even more frustrating due to the near impossibility of engaging socially with her professors and classmates. She had known even when applying for KGSP that living as a grad student in Korea would require adaptability while "encountering problems you never knew were possible." However, having to figure out so many things on her own—during COVID, no less—hasn't been ideal, and sometimes Horea feels understandably bitter about how "wasted" her nearly three years in Korea seem. Now in her final semester (the only semester that has been in-person), thankfully she's been able to finally make friends with her classmates and rely on their Korean skills when she needs further clarification on what's going on in class.
Since this is her final semester, much of Horea's time and attention are currently focused on her master's thesis, which examines the connections between horror films and feminism. More specifically, she's looking at vengeance as a means of justice for women in horror films who have been victims of sexual assault. As she and I discussed, horror is often overlooked as a source of powerful, insightful, and inventive social commentary, and Horea views it as a genre where female characters can reclaim their agency, "They can change the narrative and gain a bit of justice back on their end, as much as you can after experiencing something brutalizing." And although she does touch on a few Korean films as part of her thesis (including The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook's 2016 lesbian revenge thriller set during Japan's colonization of Korea), she's mostly focusing on Western films. This is out of respect, so she doesn't overreach by commenting on feminism from countries or regions that she's not intimately familiar with.
The obligations of being an international graduate student and working on a thesis might seem like more than enough to fill a person's days, but Horea has managed to add another activity to her journey in Korea: modeling! And not merely modeling, but working as a plus-size model, as a Black girl from Canada (a "foreigner"), in an Asian country that's often portrayed as homogeneously thin. Horea witnesses South Korea's true body diversity in everyday life, and while she's still trying to embrace that her entry into modeling is more than just a fluke—she started getting booked for gigs after posting photos of herself on Instagram and letting companies now who she was for future reference—she's thrilled to be part of a burgeoning array of both Korean and foreign plus-size/"natural-size" models within fashion and entertainment. Horea started modeling around autumn 2021, with no prior modeling aspirations; even now she maintains that she's more comfortable behind the camera. To go from that to being in a Nike commercial with G-Dragon (a rapper from a hugely famous boyband called BIG BANG), and performing with BTS (the most famous boyband in the world right now) in their March 2022 "Permission to Dance" concert, is nothing short of a wonder. Hopefully, it's an indication of more opportunities to come.
"I very much feel like [modeling is] my second school."
One of the reasons why Horea has taken a liking to modeling is that it's surprisingly instructive from a filmmaking standpoint. During shoots, seeing herself on camera and deciding what to do to create the best images gives her personal experience that she can draw from when directing actors in the future. Plus, she has added bonus of meeting people in her same field by observing directors and asking them how they got so far in their careers. She gets to learn both in front of and behind the camera when modeling, so much so that, "I very much feel like it's my second school." Though she's still open to pursuing film after her master's program is complete, Horea also wants to explore other avenues that have been opening up for her recently. Ideally, she would stay in Korea, do content creation projects, and dedicate herself more fully to modeling and the advocacy for body positivity/neutrality that her work would likely require. Admittedly, she's been holding herself back due to the newness of it all, imposter syndrome, and the time constraints of being a student. But she wants her modeling work to be about more than just the humility to show up to gigs, not get starstruck, and do a good job; she also wants to claim her place in the industry and revel in her talent. "I wish I were less humble. I wish I could drag these things out and be like, 'Yeah, that was me. Period. I did that.'"
Despite COVID limiting her travel prospects since arriving in Korea, Horea has greatly enjoyed coastal places like Busan, Jeju Island, and Yeosu, and there's still plenty of Seoul that she has yet to discover. She recently spent three wintery weeks with her family back in Ottawa, and she hopes to one day structure her life so that she can afford to visit home whenever she wants. I was so engrossed in our conversation that I forgot to ask her if she has any other future travel destinations in mind. When I messaged her about it she told me she'd love to go to France and Italy again "long term if the opportunity arises," and head over to the US sometime soon since she hasn't been there yet. As she continues to take advantage of her time in Korea, Horea can be found as @horeaaaaaaaaaa (that's Horea with 10 a's) on Instagram and TikTok, as well as her YouTube channel (HOREA).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "The Model and the Mediatic World (SOUTH KOREA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
The Handmaiden (film trailer)