Despite Disney’s recent efforts to create more animated movies with diverse characters like “Encanto” and “Raya and the Last Dragon,” the film studio is still missing a flick starring a Korean character.
Well, if Disney needs some help, 22-year-old Harvard student Julia Riew can definitely provide some ideas. She has already gained attention on social media for writing and composing an entire musical starring a Korean princess called “Shimcheong: A Folktale.”
Riew, who studies theater, dance, media and music at Harvard University, decided to make a Korean musical for her senior thesis project and clips of her singing original songs in the form of an animated character are quickly going viral on TikTok.
Earlier this month, Riew uploaded a video of her singing a tune she wrote called “Dive” to the social media platform. The clip begins with Riew snapping her fingers before she transforms into an animated character. She then begins to belt, “Now all the fish in the sea can’t stop me. All of the waves in the world can’t rock me. I’m on a mission and gee just watch me go.” In the caption and the video’s subtitles, she wrote, “There was no Korean Disney princess so I decided to make my own :).”
As of Tuesday night, the clip has accumulated almost a million views. She has also shared other snippets from songs in her full-length musical, like “I’m Coming Home.”
“It’s been my dream for a very, very long time to write for Disney and to be a musical theater writer,” Riew told TODAY. So, when the opportunity presented itself, she decided to combine her love for musicals with her senior thesis.
Riew, who has been writing musicals since she was 15 or 16, said she originally chose a different concept for her final college project. But, six months after working on her original idea, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and her grandfather passed away.
“My grandma ended up moving in with us, and, for the first time, I was practicing speaking Korean with her and hearing all of her stories,” Riew recalled. “I realized how out of touch I was with Korean culture.”
She started hunting for Korean folktales and was immediately inspired by “Shimcheong,” (sometimes spelled "Sim Cheong" or Shim Ch’ŏng," alternatively). The story is also called “The Blind Man’s Daughter.”
“It was a story about a girl who goes on an adventure, but also a story about a girl who’s looking for home,” she explained, adding that she connected with the tale as a third-generation Korean American. “I think that was something that resonated with me. So, I ended up choosing this folktale and then I’ve been working on it ever since for the last year and a half.”
With some help from her mentor — Jeanine Tesori, a Tony-winning composer — Riew wrote around eight or nine different drafts of “Shimcheong: A Folktale.” She recently settled on the current version which has an 80-page script, 23 demos and 16 full songs.
While describing the songwriting process, Riew said, “I’m an orchestrator and arranger as well as a composer, lyricist. So in writing those songs, a lot of them came deep down from the heart.” She combined her violinist skills with the sound of traditional Korean music.
To create the visual effect in the TikTok video, she recorded herself singing using a Snapchat filter that turned her into a 3D cartoon. “Everything that you see the princess doing in the video is actually me behind the filter,” she explained.
She revealed that working on the “Shimcheong: A Folktale” during the last year and a half has been really challenging but also rewarding and meaningful at the same time. Riew explained, “ I discovered more about my own identity as a Korean American and as a composer and my finding my voice so it’s been a lot of fun to work on.”
The Harvard student said she appreciates Disney’s recent efforts to showcase lead characters with a diverse background.
“I think it was hard to find things where I ever saw someone who looked like me on screen and, and still today,” she said. “So, it’s a little bit harder to find a Korean story specifically, but I’m excited about the fact that it seems like right now there is a push.”
Riew added that she believes there's "always more that can be done" to improve diversity in Hollywood.
"I think we’re moving in this direction where all voices, and especially the voices that haven’t been heard, can continue to be represented," she said.
“Shimcheong: A Folktale” could be the next theater production or film that helps Koreans feel seen, she believes. Riew said a couple theater and film producers have already reached out to her.
“I’m currently in talks with just a couple different people to try to see what the future of the project might look like. It’s not super settled," she shared. “Of course, the absolute dream would be to see it as an animated feature or on a Broadway stage.”
Riew has been “blown away” by the reception to her musical and TikTok videos.
“It’s been meaningful to see (the) Korean American community coming together (to support) a project that I think would be really meaningful to our community,” she explained. “And even now, it’s getting a bit of traction in Korea. I think, for the first time, I’m feeling a sense of community and belonging that I’ve never really felt before.”
After graduating in May, Riew plans to move to New York City and become a musical theater writer. For now, she will continue to upload sneak peeks of her musical to TikTok until she can hopefully release an entire production or album in the future.