How a Toronto biology student became a director working on Kim's Convenience
Born and raised in Scarborough, Justin Wu always knew he had an artistic side, but said he felt like he was expected to follow a more traditional path of science and business. Little did he know what kind of journey this pursuit would take him on, taking him from Toronto to Paris and back again.
Following high school, Wu got accepted into Queen's University to study biology. While there, a floormate of his took a liking to Wu's art and pushed him to pursue that passion. The two would go out and snap street photography together, with Wu eventually submitting his photos to be displayed at an exhibition.
Before long, a Toronto-area photo agency scouted Wu's talents and invited the young photographer to do some fashion photography that they felt was the best fit for his artistic style.
The love for art, photography, and fashion grew stronger and so did Wu's desire to pursue greater opportunities.
"I realized that I had to develop my craft at the epicenter of fashion, which was in Paris," Wu told blogTO. "There was no easy way to get there, at that point I was graduating from Queens. My parents had no idea I was doing this."
Wu transferred to Ivey School of Business at Western University, telling his parents that he was learning the business side of being an artist. Soon after, however, the opportunity of a lifetime arose.
An opening for an exchange to HEC Paris, one of Europe's top business schools, became available and Wu jumped on the chance to move to the French cultural and artistic hub to pursue his dreams.
"When I went to Paris... I was the worst student," Wu joked. "I attended only a handful of classes. I was a no show because I took that opportunity as my chance to, in those few months on exchange, pursue photography and see if I could make it into a career."
The risk paid off, and Wu was soon signed to a photo and film agency that would cause him to spend the next decade living in Paris.
During that time he shot for iconic brands such as Vogue, Elle, GQ, and Dior. Wu continued to grow as an artist moving from photography to commercials, and eventually writing and directing his own short film that would win him win the Filmmaker of the Future Award at an Academy Awards qualifying festival.
Despite the international success, Wu's hometown of Toronto kept beckoning him back.
"Time and time again while I was in Paris, I would return to Toronto to visit family. With each passing year I had recognized how exciting and vibrant Toronto had become for film, music, and art," Wu explained. "Having lived abroad for a while, I knew I had to come back to Toronto full time, which I eventually did a few years ago."
"The reason I came back was to simply recognize how beautiful Toronto continues to be. It's a city rich with incredibly diverse and talented voices and I really wanted to join the chorus," he told blogTO.
He credits Toronto's openness and willingness to discuss and share ideas among people of different cultures as just part of what makes the city so special.
"I don't think there [are] many cities like Toronto that have so many cultures living together all at once," said Wu.
"When you are immersed in a world where you have all this access to information, culture, and knowledge, I think you naturally breed artists who have a lot to say, who have a lot to share, and it's fresh most importantly.
"I think that's what makes so many of our artists stand out. It's that we have a unique voice coming from a particularly well-versed multi-ethnic cultural environment."
After returning, Wu got to live out another fantasy after being invited to direct an episode of Kim's Convenience.
Having learned from his experience in Paris how important it is to create your own opportunities, Wu knew he wanted to break into television directing and working with the team at Kim's Convenience was at the top of his list.
"I had just moved back to Toronto and when I was looking at different shows to get my start on, there was no question I had to reach out to the show runners at Kim’s Convenience," Wu explained.
He contacted show runners Kevin White and Ins Choi to plead his case, share his resumé, and express his adoration for the production. Many months later, he got the call offering the chance to direct an episode and was immediately brought to tears.
As someone who was a fan of the show from back when it was just a stage play, getting to work with personal heroes of his such as Paul Sun-Hyung Lee was a dream come true.
Wu's episode was titled "Slippery Slope," the eigth episode of the fifth and final season of Kim's Convenience.
On set, Wu described a full circle moment while directing an episode where Andrea Bang's character Janet teaches a street photography course, something he did all those years ago back at Queen's. The scene helped show just how far he had come.
"It was really the best experience I ever could have hoped for," he said.
Wu got to flex his creative muscle, and show his ability to turn a bad situation into a good one while working on set for Kim's. The episode called for a high school reunion, but because of COVID restrictions, there weren't many extras available to take part in the scene.
Instead, the decision was made to simply have no one turn up for the reunion. Wu planned a shot involving a sign-up table littered with unclaimed name tags of people who hadn't even bothered to show face.
Always one to make sure credit is given where it's due, an Easter Egg was also planted - those who look closely will see that the name tags are all for crew members who have worked on the show.
"It was kind of a nod and a thanks to them, and you know it was also another way to avoid having extras in the scene," Wu explained.
Wu now finds himself working with the United Nations, developing awareness campaigns where he was put in touch with the UN Refugee Agency. There he learned of Biko Beauttah, a black, transgender refugee.
The two quickly connected, leading to Wu writing, directing and producing a documentary on her journey from Kenya to Toronto, experiences coming out, her transition, and her entire process seeking asylum.
The film was shot over the past year during the pandemic and Wu hopes to premiere it during TIFF later this year with the purpose of highlighting Beauttah's story, all the challenges refugees face, and to help people empathize and recognize the humanitarian crisis that is still ongoing.
Having had a wild journey of his own, Wu hopes his storytelling and sharing the tales of others can help better connect people across Toronto and throughout the world during these tough times.
"We need to be more cognizant and more respectful of each other. Yes these are difficult times, [but] take the learnings of Kim's Convenience, a show that was beloved by all," he explains. "I think the show best encapsulates what Toronto should be. This inclusive, equal, and harmonious multicultural city."
Wu knows just how important it can be to get noticed in order to become successful, though.
"I think as artists we have that responsibility to speak our minds, speak our truths, and put it out there. You never know who will be reading, who will be affected by it, and who can discover you."
With his upcoming documentary he now hopes to pay it forward and put others in the spotlight. In a city that's filled with millions of people, sometimes having just one person notice you is enough.
Shalan and Paul
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