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Interview: Director Seo Young-Soo's lifetime passion for Pu'er tea

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Director Seo Young-Soo at the auction in 2014
Director Seo Young-Soo at the auction in 2014

On November 3rd, 2014, Taetea Group, the world's largest Pu'er tea manufacturing company, held a live charity auction event celebrating its 10th year of privatization. The event drew more than 3,000 Pu'er tea enthusiasts to bid on Taetea certified handmade 1kg bricks of pressed Pu'er tea leaves produced for the anniversary. Soon after the tea cake went under the hammer, hollering sounds of those eager to purchase the produce filled the auditorium. A Korean man named Seo Young-Soo took everyone by surprise bidding a whopping 50,000 yuan (roughly 7,650 USD). Seo Young-Soo further surprised people by donating the tea back to Taetea's museum.

Seo tells us the reason behind donating the tea cake back to Taetea Group. "I believe the tea cake will do more good as a memento marking the growth in Pu'er tea culture. I hope Taetea Group will use the donation to further promote Pu'er tea in Korea." He adds, "Korea is one of the biggest Pu'er tea consumers outside of China, but this fact is hardly known. So I went out of my way to leave a mark."

So who is Seo Young-Soo? For the longest time in his life, he was called "Director Seo". Born in 1956, Seo Young-Soo is a film director who established his name in the fledgling Korean film industry during the 1980s. His directorial debut is the classic Korean film "The Unnoticed", released in 1984. The movie had Seo making headlines as the youngest movie director in the history of South Korean film. He went on to write and direct significant films such as "Rose Motel" and "Seoul Emmanuelle". Later he continued his work as a director and producer in television as well as in advertising.

His first encounter with Pu'er tea took place while working on set with filmmakers from Hong Kong in the 1980s. Seo recalls how the Hong Kong crew members would carry thermoses with Pu'er tea. A couple years later, Seo was given the role of director for a documentary on the diplomatic relationship between Korea and China. It was at that time when a Chinese government official presented him with a Pu'er tea cake that Seo Young Soo found himself truly fascinated. Seo mentions that he loves the lingering warm sensation as much as he loves the exquisite taste and aromas. Seo then decided to take his fascination with Pu'er to another level.

Seo Young-Soo started to use his spare time between his films to travel to the origin of Pu'er tea in China. "There are over 100 well-known places growing Pu'er tea in Yunnan province. I have been to at least 80 of them." says Seo. With only a backpack, the tea enthusiast hiked the deep valleys of the ancient Southern Silk Road (茶马古道) and the snowy paths around Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山) in search of Pu'er. Seo recalls he had only started to describe himself as a researcher of Pu'er tea once he knew the exact roads to many Pu'er tea farms by heart.

A sprouting Pu'er tea leaf
A sprouting Pu'er tea leaf

Seo Young-Soo says there are too many tales from his many journeys to share that it would take days to describe them. He says the most unforgettable moment was his encounter with Jinxiu Ancient Tea Tree King – a 3,200 year old tea tree in Yunnan. He recalls the tree can only be reached after an arduous trip of crossing the Xiaowan Dam and a cave with no lights. About eight hours into the trip, he almost felt like giving up. But eventually the tunnel led to open fields of tea trees which he could only describe as overwhelmingly peaceful. When he finally found the ancient tree, he found himself astonished with its beauty and living history.

The Xiongda Tea Wholesale Market in Kunming
The Xiongda Tea Wholesale Market in Kunming

Some of his travels to Kunming also remain to be some of his fondest memories during his search. His experience in the Spring City mostly involved searching local markets searching for tea. Seo mentions some hotspots in finding good tea in Kunming. He says the Jinshi and Xiongda tea markets are worth visiting, as they are located right next to each other. Between these two, the Xiongda market was established more recently. Thus it has the convenience of better parking and a more spacious shopping area offering all kinds of Chinese teas. The Kangle market is also an attractive destination for tea lovers. It has a lively atmosphere with bigger crowds and is developed more recently than the other markets.

Like for most people in the world, Seo Young-Soo's expeditions have come to a full stop in 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Nevertheless, he does not stop practicing Cha Dao, the art of making tea. "Rather than worrying for myself and my inability to travel, I am more worried about those who suffer in this age of isolation." he says. Seo Young-Soo wants to communicate with the emotionally distressed under the current pandemic that process of making and drinking tea can help. Opening a jar of tea, boiling water to exactly the correct temperature and brewing the dried leaves into the well-known drink with that gentle green color can be very therapeutic – especially for those cut away from their ordinary lives, Seo explains. He also insists that drinking Pu'er tea could help strengthen immunity by increasing our body temperature and supplying antioxidants.

When asked about the first thing he wants to do after the current pandemic, Seo says he wants to merge the two biggest passions in his life: Pu'er tea and film. "If given the right opportunity, I would like to direct a movie about Pu'er tea in Yunnan. I want to share my passion and experience with Pu'er tea."

The auctioned Pu'er tea cake
The auctioned Pu'er tea cake

Seo Young-Soo says both his passions are lifetime endeavors. Seo explains why. "Pu'er tea and Film has this in common – it is the art of patience. Pu'er tea requires time to grow, ferment and brew, and so does producing a film. A masterpiece is never made overnight."

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