Jason Lee did what a lot of stereotypical Asian sons could never even imagine: he quit his stable job to start The Jubilee Project, which has garnered widespread attention for its focus on living life to its fullest, regardless of the difficulties one faces in life. He shared his story during his TED Talk, where he recalled his mother’s shock and initial dismay at Jason and his brother’s decision to pack up and leave their mundane lives to start something unknown and new. “Everyone’s response was the same across the board,” Lee states, “they kept asking if I was sure of my decision. I realized my experience conflicted with society’s goals and that scares people. I was taught to follow the rules.”
Despite being terrified about his decision to move across the country to California, Lee knew that he could not be truly happy if he based his life on achievements and not on passion. Lee, his brother, and best friend started making short videos about subjects they cared about when they were approached by a Korean pastor who encouraged them to visit South Korea and learn about the sex trafficking industry there. Human trafficking is crime that takes place worldwide, but few people seemed to be aware of how prevalent it is in bigger, technologically advanced Asian cities such as Seoul. Lee was initially intrigued by the subject because “(trafficking) is one of the biggest atrocities of our time.” The Lee brothers shot over 500 hours of footage which eventually became their critically acclaimed documentary, Save My Seoul.
The film exposes how sex trafficking is an open secret in Seoul, where the culture praises respectability and conformity. Underneath the glossy exterior of smiling and happy young people and the popularity of Korean dramas and music, there lies the physical and emotional crises experienced by the minors who are being exploited by adults who have a blatant disregard for the children they are paying to have sex with.
Save My Seoul revolves around two girls, Crystal and Esther, who were brave enough to reveal not only their identities, but also their inner selves on camera. Doing so could have made them social pariahs but they risked their lives and their reputations to help others who are also being exploited. Lee keeps in touch with Esther, who he is immensely proud of as she is currently in college with the goal of becoming a counselor for other girls who are victims of trafficking. Lee’s voice broke when informing us that Crystal had died after the film came out, revealing how deeply he feels about the film’s subjects. Lee and his brother shared many meaningful moments with the girls and became protective of their well-being.
When asked how Lee felt about the trafficking of children as a man, he replied, “(making the documentary) changed my mind about men. My mom has always been my role model as she’s very independent. But regarding men and society, there’s so much goodness but also evil. There is no accountability and without transparency, we start to act in our worst behavior.” His response to Korea is mixed as he realized that Korean society is complicit regarding the exploitation of young people. “There’s a strong emphasis on saving face and reputation at the expense of a lot of things, and a debate about whether real issues like mental health exist.”
Although Lee has become weary of Korean society, he is hopeful that things can change if young people start a dialogue about difficult issues that have traditionally brushed under the rug to maintain the status quo. “Hope is critical as people become discouraged without hope and purpose. Speaking to someone like Esther, who is fighting for goodness and hope, makes me believe in change. At the end of the day, we can live our lives for ourselves. People are not fundamentally bad and I believe that everyone can pursue a more rewarding, purposeful way of life by living greater and inspiring others to do good in the world.”
During such a politically divisive time in America, it seems easy to lose that sense of hope and belief in the greater good. Lee believes that “it’s easy for us to choose sides. But the truth is that we have both sides in us and everyone is human. We need to choose love and know that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”