One actor, two very different roles in ‘Seoul Switch’

Writer Daniel Anderson talks with K-pop idol Kevin Woo and director Liann Kaye about their Freaky Friday-esque short film and unpacking the nuances of Asian and Asian American identity

Kevin Woo as DJ and Moon in Seoul Switch

Seoul Switch

K-pop idols seem to have it all: looks, charisma, talent, fame, and success. As K-pop continues its global ascent, countless young talents dream of joining a group, ready to dedicate time, energy, and mental health to their ambitions. But is the glamorous idol life truly worth the sacrifice, or is a life of normalcy better? That’s the premise of Seoul Switch, a short film written and directed by Liann Kaye. Inspired by Kaye’s love of K-pop, Seoul Switch stars Kevin Woo, renowned as the main vocalist of U-KISS and for his role in the Broadway musical KPOP. Woo plays dual roles: DJ, an insecure Asian American from Ohio, and Moon, a fictional K-pop idol in Korea. As they meet, they quickly learn that while they may look identical, their identities are vastly different. Seoul Switch humorously embraces its Freaky Friday, Parent Trap framework, but offers something fresh by exploring the nuances and complexities of Asian identity, masculinity, mental health, and privilege in the East and West.

Ahead of Seoul Switch's screening in Japan, Kaye and Woo spoke with JoySauce about their short film and their aspirations for a feature-length version.

Daniel Anderson: Liann, what was your inspiration to write and create Seoul Switch?

Liann Kaye: The idea for Seoul Switch was born during the pandemic when I spent a lot of time watching K-pop videos. As a fan, I became particularly interested in Western idols who grew up in America, Canada, or Australia and moved to Korea to pursue their dreams as teenagers. It was fascinating to see them code-switch between Asian and American spaces—being polite and using honorifics in Korea, then adopting a harder hip-hop attitude when performing in English. This duality sparked the idea of a switch concept, exploring themes of race, culture, privilege, and beauty standards. Many Asian Americans wonder who they might have been if they grew up in their mother country as the ethnic majority. I wrote the script based on speculation and a lot of YouTube research. During the writers’ strike, my first feature, Electable, was put on hold, and in a moment of panic, I decided to shoot Seoul Switch as a short film to prove the concept.

DA: How did you get Kevin involved in the project?

LK: When I went to see KPOP on Broadway, I was looking for a lead. I saw Kevin, who was effortlessly switching between Korean and English and had the perfect look for a K-pop idol. Despite thinking he might be too busy or famous, a mutual friend who was also in the musical connected us. She offered to share Kevin's email, and I decided to take a chance. I sent him the concept deck, and he was immediately interested. After reading the script, he felt it mirrored his own life experience, which was incredibly validating.

DA: Are there specific insights that Kevin brought to the project versus if you had found a different lead without actual idol experience?

LK: It's almost frightening to think about working with anyone else because there's no one quite like Kevin. There are only a handful of Korean American K-pop idols, many of whom are currently active. The fact that I got Kevin during his transition from KPOP Broadway to moving to LA feels destined. Kevin’s K-pop training was invaluable. If I had cast a non-K-pop idol, they might have been a great actor but lacked the specific training in dance, singing, modeling, and confidence that Kevin has. He knew exactly how to perform for the camera, how to hold his body, and how to exude the confidence of a K-pop idol. His 15 years of training meant I didn't need a choreographer for the dances or poses. Beyond his skills, Kevin was generous with his experiences and worked closely with me on the script. He helped translate Korean and shaped the character of Moon, distinguishing how an overconfident Korean idol behaves differently in American and Korean contexts. He corrected my Google Translate swearing and refined many cultural details. For example, Moon’s anxiety about being put on hiatus, a specific K-pop term, was something Kevin helped explore deeply. He asked about the group's history, popularity, and his role within it, which added layers to the character. 

Kevin Woo: Absolutely! This whole process felt destined. When I first read the script, I was blown away by how beautifully written it was. K-pop has become a huge part of my identity, and I had a lot to share. Liann asked great questions about the Korean American experience, my insecurities growing up in the States, and how my formative years in Seoul shaped me. DJ and Moon have many layers, and I wanted to help mold and shape the story in the most authentic way possible. It was a very collaborative process. We shared our experiences and confided in each other. Liann asked questions that I had never asked myself, which gave me a new perspective on my own story. It was almost like a therapy session, where I dug deep into my past, reflected on who I am today, and considered the adversities and sacrifices that brought me here.

Kevin Woo behind the scenes on Seoul Switch. Photo by Matt Infante.
Kevin Woo behind the scenes on Seoul Switch. Photo by Matt Infante.

DA: Tell me more about that reflection

KW: It was almost a double-edged sword. There was joy in revisiting my experiences to inform others about the Korean American experience and what can be changed for future generations. This isn’t just for aspiring K-pop stars but for anyone juggling multiple identities and cultural backgrounds. The film represents that generation and community, bringing awareness to important topics. One of the biggest topics we discussed was defining masculinity, especially as an Asian American man growing up in both America and Korea. I didn’t have great role models growing up, and it took me longer to find myself. Everyone has their own pace, but the lack of representation really resonated with me and motivated me to work on this project with Liann. Liann, being a newer K-pop fan, had excellent questions about how the K-pop system worked a decade or two ago and how I was personally brought up. There are still things in the industry that haven't changed since my era, which is another reason I wanted to tackle this project. With the rise of social media, issues like mental health have become more pressing, and we address these in the film.

DA: There is a great scene where Moon has a panic attack and DJ tries to address it and asks Moon about therapy. Moon scoffs at the idea of a therapist. Kevin, can you share how the dialogue around mental health has evolved for K-pop idols over time?

KW: Progress has been slow but steady. Mental health breaks are becoming more normalized in the K-pop industry, something unimaginable during my era. Back then, it was all about pushing through for the fans, the company, and your group members, with little space for self-care. Nowadays, it's more common for K-pop idols to take hiatuses during promotions or tours for mental health reasons. This transparency with fans is a positive change. Previously, vague statements about health issues led to unnecessary rumors and worry. Clear communication about mental health breaks helps alleviate that uncertainty. However, I'm unsure how well these mental health issues are being addressed in Korea. There might not be sufficient resources or treatments available, as Korean society still struggles with understanding and accepting mental health compared to the States. While it's a step in the right direction, the specifics of how idols are supported behind the scenes remain unclear.

DA: The film has already picked up positive buzz, winning Best Narrative Short at the DisOrient Film Festival and Best Short Film at Incheon International Short Film Festival. What does it mean to you to have Seoul Switch resonate with these target demographics in the Asian American space and Korea abroad? 

LK: I have to credit Kevin's fans for being vocal on social media, which helped us get attention in that part of the world. Getting into the Short Shorts Film Festival, the biggest Asian festival and Academy Award-qualifying, is a big deal. Winning Best Narrative at Disorient was especially validating during a tough time in the industry with uncertainties around streaming and the aftermath of strikes. Creating something independently with our scrappy crew, instead of waiting for a studio's green light, was empowering. As a Chinese American, I've reflected on why I wrote this story. Initially, I wondered if K-pop's popularity meant I could be famous. But I realized that, like in America, there's a hierarchy of beauty standards in the K-pop industry. Despite being ethnically Chinese, I saw parallels in discrimination across cultures. This perspective helped me bring nuance to the story. In the feature film, we plan to include more foreign idols and explore how foreigners are treated in different societies, touching on privilege and discrimination. The response for the short has been great, especially as our joyful, comedic film stands out amid many important but often serious Asian American stories about racism and hardship. It's been fun to be a bright spot.

KW: At DisOrient, we were surprised and thrilled by the positive reception. It was our first time watching the film on a big screen with an audience, which was definitely nerve-wracking. I remember Liann and I holding hands in anticipation, especially since our film was the last to be screened. We were anxiously listening for laughs and reactions, and it was such a relief and joy to hear the audience respond to the humor. It wasn’t just us laughing, which was a great validation.

LK: Kevin, it’s been validating to see you recognized for your acting, especially with several festivals singling you out as Best Actor. 

KW: I'm still processing it. I began acting in the States only two or three years ago, during the pandemic, with KPOP on Broadway being one of my first professional gigs. It was a huge honor to receive this recognition. It's motivating me to push harder and improve my craft as an actor.

DA: You’ll also be making your way to Asia and screening the film at festivals there too. What are you looking forward to?

KW: We're curious about its reception in Asia. We believe it will speak volumes there too, as it addresses topics they may not be aware of, shedding light on the adversities Asian Americans face. Growing up in Korea as a Korean American, my story wasn't always understood.

Liann Kaye directing Seoul Switch. Photo by Matt Infante.
Liann Kaye directing Seoul Switch. Photo by Matt Infante.

DA: On the topic of Kevin’s acting, how was it for you preparing to play these two distinct  characters? 

KW: To be honest, it wasn't an easy task. But in another sense, it was also very natural. It's hard to describe. There are aspects where I really remove myself from who I am and reconstruct these characters. To strip away these tendencies and muscle memory and decades of experience was quite a task. I'm still in this journey of exploring as an actor. Getting to be very vulnerable in front of the camera, director, and everyone in the room was a very liberating experience. I was able to use that as a tool to really kind of heal my past scars and trauma. I think the biggest task was really finding the character of DJ and Moon, who they were, what their identity is, why they chose this path, why they even want to switch lives. Going to DJ and visiting my past and how insecure I felt as a kid in high school, getting bullied, not fitting in, even in my Korean American community. Getting into the headspace for DJ took more time than for Moon. When I was monitoring the screen after shooting, it was kind of shocking to me to see that in myself.

DA: Is there a lesson you’ll take away from this project?

KW: There's so many. The range and the dynamic of these two characters was pretty extreme. My horizons and capability as an actor has broadened. and I want to thank Liann for taking me there. Getting to learn the comedic timing and finding the depth of that, as an actor was also very rewarding. I took part in a lot of building the story and seeing what it's like to co-produce, what it's like to be on the other side of the camera. Everyone was really hands on. To add one more thing, because these two roles were so close to me in my life, I was really able to connect and stay in the present moment during the scenes. Because this was a story that I could truly resonate with, I'm able to bond with the character. I feel like that's a great first step into connecting with other more diverse non-Kpop characters too. This whole experience was a message to my old self, telling younger Kevin that things will be okay.

Kevin Woo as DJ and Moon in Seoul Switch.
Kevin Woo as DJ and Moon in Seoul Switch.

DA: Lastly, Liann, is the script written for the full-length feature? Is there anything you can tease from that? What does the rest of your dream cast look like?

LK: Moon goes to Ohio and he experiences life as a minority, which really freaks him out. He’s in a predominantly white space where people either ignore him or have stereotypes about him. DJ remains in Seoul and gets treated as the pretty boy, golden-spoon child. People think he’s had life handed to him on a silver platter, but he’s like, ‘What? I've never.’ He has a love interest that's going to be a Chinese idol. That's where at least some of my background comes in. He will grapple with interracial dating and comments like, ‘Chinese people shouldn't date Koreans.’ I would say that the foreign idols are going to be Chinese and Japanese. The Chinese idol I know is loosely based off of Hwasa from Mamamoo. I want to explore themes with the Chinese idol character because she's curvy and has darker skin. The Japanese idol too, will also feel discrimination, which is very subtle within K-pop groups. I guess my group is NCT. I would love for those members to appear. The two Western idols Johnny and Mark are the ones that I had in mind when this film started. An Eric Nam cameo would be pretty fun. 

Published on June 13, 2024

Words by Daniel Anderson

Daniel Anderson is a disabled Chinese American adoptee based in Seattle. His freelance writing specialties include K-pop, entertainment, and food. He believes that any restaurant can be a buffet, and the key to success is to take a nap each day. Follow his adventures on Instagram @danzstan.