MCN Columnists

By Rose Kuo rkuo@me.com

Irene Cho: A Force of Nature

Irene Cho, founder and producer of Daily Buzz, passed away on Thursday, August 17 after suffering a stroke. Her sister, Sunny, says that Irene had returned from South Korea the previous week and was about to embark on a three-week journey to Burma. She was 46.

Born in Lumberton, North Carolina on November 13, 1970, Irene grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina and Seoul, Korea. After receiving a BA in Economics from Meredith College she embarked on a film career, working for DreamWorks Pictures in publicity and marketing. A multi-hyphenate, she was also an independent producer of film and television. She worked for several years at Sundance Film Festival in publicity and managing press relations before deciding to chart a more entrepreneurial course. She launched her own company, The Daily Buzz, an online radio show covering film festivals and emerging filmmakers.

Irene ChoIrene and I met on the last day of the 2012 Dallas International Film Festival  where she was presenting the Korean film she produced, “Let Me Out,” and I was serving on the Narrative Feature Jury. We were kindred spirits: both of us were parenting young children and freaking out about leaving them to attend something as frivolous as a film festival; we were pursuing careers in a niche area  – festivals, foreign films – of an industry with already few Asians; our formative years were spent in small American towns, and we both loved David Chang’s homemade kimchi.

After meeting her husband, Soo Chyung, she became a year-round resident of Park City. During the Sundance Film Festival, Irene would host meals at a sushi place, one of several popular restaurants she owned with her husband. Her kindness and generosity extended beyond friends to random strangers, so her table would be filled with familiar faces and people she met while walking up Main Street just minutes prior. She would make introductions, tell everyone to sit and enjoy the meal she ordered, pay the bill and rush off with a smile because she had double- or triple-booked her time. Usually this meant she was in hot pursuit of an emerging filmmaker or producer for her radio show, or she had the morning’s recording to cut and publish, or she was meeting a potential sponsor or funder, or maybe she just offered to help someone with their film outreach on top of the dozen other things she was doing. Irene was always busy, yet she was always available to help someone else.

My brother also lives in Salt Lake City and this allowed me to spend time with Irene beyond the January festival, into weeks during spring break, summer vacations and winter holidays. Her son, Ethan, blended into my extended family of multiple siblings and several young cousins. She was a devoted mother who preferred that her son accompany her throughout the day. She would patiently explain her schedule and why they might have a few moments of tedium but all would end with something fun that they could do together. It was easy to observe how her extraordinary skill at being an attentive caretaker for her son also translated into how considerate and supportive she was to friends and colleagues. She was a true and loyal friend, always ready with a hug and a loud, throaty laugh.

Her high-octane energy matched her endless range of ideas. A desire or project would spring from her mind that seemed impossible or crazy, but somehow she would manage to will them into existence. One time, she called me and suggested that we organize a brunch for newly elected mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti – we didn’t know him – because she was sure that “he is going to be president one day.” There was not enough time or money and he hadn’t agreed. Not only did Irene make it come to life, Garcetti played a tune for us on the piano during the event.

The Daily Buzz evolved from an innovative idea Irene hatched about giving a platform to voices from the emerging global film scene as well as dispense advice from experts in podcast form. She nurtured and supported the show with her own steam, tenacity, and funding into a well-respected broadcast program which covered current topics out of the Sundance, SXSW and Cannes festivals. The show introduced audiences to a wide group of filmmakers, producers, festival organizers, and other film industry luminaries, oftentimes before they “broke out” at a festival. In Irene, this community encountered an enthusiastic champion who would carry their message and talk about their work everywhere she went for she was a tireless advocate. She affected the lives of everyone she touched.

She talked about her family a great deal and though she enjoyed much success in her work, it was clear that above all, she was a wonderful mother to Ethan, a devoted wife to Soo, a caring sibling to her sister Sunny, and a loving daughter to her parents.

We will miss you dearly, Irene, and how your wonderful smile and energy lit up the room and our lives.

Rest in peace.

3 Responses to “Irene Cho: A Force of Nature”

  1. Melissa Mobley says:

    Thank you for this wonderful tribute Rose. Her death has left a large hole in so many of our hearts.

  2. Gregg Goldstein says:

    It’s hard to believe Irene is gone. She was one of the sweetest people, always radiating enthusiasm and kindness. She’ll be so missed.

  3. Gary Meyer says:

    This is a shock. I just learned about it a day too late to attend her memorial but I am glad to come across your moving tribute Rose. From it I learned about her personal side and this makes the loss even harder to take.

    I was honored to have been asked to be on The Daily Buzz from Sundance.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin