Early Films, CalArts, Gina Kim Video Diary

Describe the work you were making before you left Korea to come to the US?

Most of my student works in Korea were mixed-media, installation, performance art…, and I was involved in a theater group. Seoul National University is a very conservative school, and it was very slow in terms of keeping up with new media and new trends in art, but when I was a senior, a video art class was offered for the first time ever and I was introduced to this new medium. That was the first time I ever touched a video camera, and I still remember the feeling—it was thrilling. I was so excited by this new medium and its incredible potential: to make my artwork, which is very personal, become more public, to be able to distribute it, to be able to communicate with millions of people—in painting you can never do that. 

I did see Bill Viola’s stuff and some North American video art, but it was pretty random. We didn’t even speak English so we’d watch the film not subtitled, and the teacher would try to explain what was going on. It was like blind people trying to understand the shape of an elephant or something. I was learning the hard way, but I am glad I was introduced to video art without any sort of conceptual discourse. 

Where did you go to school to study film?

I studied at CalArts. Some of my teachers there included Thom Anderson, Berenice Reynaud, and James Benning. James Benning was one of biggest inspirations for me I think, and Stan Brakhage also—I love his films. My student work was often very mathematical, very photographic, in ways that related to Benning’s work and other films I was seeing.

When did you start filming yourself?

I started documenting myself in the fall of 1995, and then when I moved to the United States to go to college, I was recording every day, sometimes five or six hours a day. That was pretty much all I ever did back then, because I didn’t have any family, I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t speak English—I didn’t even have any furniture. I was so scared to go out, to be out; my only social activity was feeding a neighbor’s cat. I lived this really secluded crazy life; the video camera became my only friend, my family, my pet, everything. Sometimes I was so lonely that I would turn the camera on just to feel that I was not alone, and to see someone, myself, moving in the monitor. This was not performative taping at all; the video camera was just there, breathing, flickering, like a small animal.

Can you please describe the origin of Gina Kim’s Video Diary?

At first, making the tapes had been a therapeutic kind of thing, something just for myself, like going to a priest and make a confession. I wasn’t even saving the recordings. Now, I began to realize that I should keep the tapes safe. I did compile some footage that I tried to edit while I was still going to CalArts, but it was too painful to watch that footage at that point; it seemed too weird and too raw. And there was so much of it, something like two hundred hours of footage. Empty Houses was my first successful try at a work made out of the diary material. But it wasn’t until two years after my graduation that I managed to edit Gina Kim’s Video Diary. 

So when I finished Gina Kim’s Video Diary, I had enough confidence to send it to one of the programmers at the Berlin Film Festival. She really loved it, so that was another really prestigious experience for me—Berlin is big. For me the film festival experience was not about glamour; it was where I learned that my films can speak to people, that they can actually be of help to other people. My video diary is a coming of age story about how to survive in this world where we don’t really admit our physicality. 

I think that the tag-line of my life is that passage from the Russian/Jewish poet, Marina Tsvetayeva: “I didn’t want this, not/ this (but listen, quietly,/to want is what bodies do/and now we are ghosts only).” Unless you admit your physical presence, your body, you don’t know how to want things, let alone how to pursue them. A woman who desires has been the most important theme in all of my works, including my new film, Never Forever, which is about a woman who doesn’t know what she wants until the end, when she finally accepts her desire, despite what it will cost her. 


Invisible Light

How did your film Invisible Light come about?

As I was finishing the editing of Gina Kim’s Video Diary, I was writing a script for what became Invisible Light—though it was not really a script at the beginning; it was more like notes on random images occurring to me out of the blue: a woman sitting alone cannot eat this really warm and nice looking meal; or a woman standing on top of a bridge, looking down, as if she’s considering suicide. Images just kept occurring and I didn’t know what to do with them other than to write them down, but then later, when I tried to consolidate them, I realized there were two characters living in my notebook: one person was always on the road (so I called her Do-hee, which means the woman on the road in Korean) and the one who stays at home: Gah-in in Korean). 

When I came to structure the film, I had a mathematical inspiration. Do you remember the y = 1/x graph?  When you assign equal values to the x and the y, the result is two very neat curves; one lives in a plus world and the other lives in a minus world; they seem to echo each other, but they never cross. I thought the two characters corresponded to these two curves. Exactly half way between the curves is zero, which I imagined as the man: Do-hee’s husband and Gah-in’s lover; the two women never meet but their lives are connected through this man and their personalities are like mirror images of each other. The women in the film have different issues; they are very different people, but they also have many things in common, so many in fact that they can be seen as two sides of the same personality. I can even say that they are essentially the same person.  The point here is that both are reaching for the same goal: to come to terms with themselves and to find and admit their own physicality and their own physical desires. 

These parallels are built into the structure of the film. In both stories the climax—Gah-in’s binge-ing and Do-hee’s masturbation—come at the exactly same spot. I thought it made sense to give Do-hee the plus numbers and Gah-in the minus numbers—both having to do with pregnancy. Actually Gah-in is supposed to be suffering from PMS; I ended up deleting direct references to this, but the numbers involved her counting down to her period, which will mean she’s not pregnant. The plus numbers refer to the number of days Do-hee has been pregnant. The clock is ticking for her and she really has to make a decision about whether to keep the baby or not. My interpretation is that she does not take the pill. I probably should have put English subtitles at the end when she hums the Schubert lullaby. She’s singing the song to her baby.

What is the connection between Invisible Light and Video Diary? Why did you decide to make a fictional narrative film? Is the story autobiographical at all?

Even after I finished this script for Invisible Light, I wasn’t completely committed to making a narrative feature. I traveled with Gina Kim’s Video Diary with this script in my pocket, mostly thinking of making an experimental documentary or a work of video art that would use a lot of inter-titles and voiceovers. But then as I was interacting with these perceptive young women and the young artists and critics in audiences seeing Gina Kim’s Video Diary, I started to think that maybe I should make a fiction film out of it, something that could speak to a broader audience. 

I was fascinated by this idea because while both characters in the script were fictional, both had certainly come from my heart; I considered them my babies. Having actors realize these characters was an experiment for me: I knew that it would be really challenging because I had never directed a fictional piece. At the same time, I was hoping that my documentary approach to the script and the other, fictional elements might create a really interesting tension, a dialectic, and reveal some new meanings.

Can you talk about the production budget and process for the film?

The crew size was about twelve people and the total budget was under $150,000. Of that, more than $80,000 was for the tape-to-film transfer—we shot on video, then transferred it to 35mm film—so the actual budget for film and the actors and everything else was about $70,000, which is nothing when you’re flying back and forth from Korea. Everybody, including myself, pretty much worked for free. I did all the production design and the costume design, almost everything. The film takes place in confined spaces and is really controlled; that had to happen because I didn’t want the film to look cheap. There’s little dialogue in the film, but sound is really important.  Because of the very low budget, there were very few things I could do to deliver what I wanted to say. One of them was sound design, which is all done post-production; if you know Pro Tools, you can do many things from your laptop. From the very beginning of the production my goal was to use the diegetic sound as much as possible; I wanted every single sound that you hear in this film to come from the scene itself: no music, no added sound effects. I wanted to emphasize the feeling of diaspora experienced by these two women, and for me trains and airplanes are the sounds that always trigger the idea of diaspora. 


Never Forever

Can you give a brief summary of the film?

Basically, it’s a melodrama. And this is the first genre film I have made. The lead character, Sophie, is a Caucasian woman who's married to Andrew, a Korean-American, a very successful lawyer, and they have everything but a child. They can't conceive because Andrew’s sperm is weak.  His father dies and he goes into a deep depression. In a desperate attempt to save their marriage, Sophie starts a very dangerous sexual relationship with this poor immigrant guy whose name is Jihah. He's just literally arrived from Korea; he doesn't speak very good English, doesn't have any money, all he has, basically, is his healthy body. Jihah and Sophie accidentally meet at the fertility clinic where he was trying to sell his sperm. They have sex, and Sophie pays him $300 each time, and any kind of personal or intimate feelings are completely forbidden because it's a business transaction more than anything else. As time goes by, Sophie starts to feel attached and starts to have doubts about her marriage. And when she finds herself pregnant, their relationship makes a very unexpected turn.

Where did the idea for Never Forever come from? Was the racial element part of the story from the beginning?

The race element was definitely one of the jumping off points for Never Forever. The story developed when I started teaching at Harvard University. I had never lived on the East Coast before and was quite struck by Boston’s lack of ethnic diversity. I became more conscious of my own race than ever before (having been born and raised in Korea, I had very little awareness of race), and I became intrigued by how Asian people are perceived in “mainstream” culture in the United States. I was always aware of how Asian women are sexualized in American pop culture, but had very little knowledge about how Asian men are perceived. Well, most of them are completely de-sexualized. Asian men are very rarely portrayed as subjects of desire in the U.S. Of course, there are exceptions, often good-looking, successful professionals (lawyers, doctors, etcetera). When I investigated the distinction, I realized that it’s class issue more than anything else. Asian working-class men are often completely desexualized, unlike Latino laborers. Upper class Asian men are the only ones who are supposed to be desirable enough to get Caucasian women. I wanted to subvert this stereotype. Jihah is a poor immigrant, but I wanted to portray him as a sexually charged man. Andrew is a sexy upper class Asian man but his sperm is weak and therefore, he is de-sexualized on the most basic level. 

What were some of your influences for this film?

Douglas Sirk films greatly influenced me, as did some European films: Belle de jour [1967, directed by Luis Buñuel], for example. But the most inspiring films were Korean films from the 1960s. I was teaching a Korean cinema class at Harvard when I first started to conceptualize ideas for Never Forever, and I was fortunate enough to get some 35mm prints of classic Korean cinema for class screenings. Of course, I had seen the films a long time ago, but when I watched them again, I was impressed with how subversive they were—both aesthetically and thematically. The depiction of women in  such films as Madame Freedom [1956, directed by Han Hyeong-mo], The Housemaid [1960, directed by Kim Ki-young], and The Houseguest and My Mother [1961, directed by Shin Sang-ok] moved me deeply. The women in these films are driven by their own desires and their struggle to fulfill these desires. The endings of these films are often less than satisfying, but the films inspired me nevertheless. I started to wonder what would happen if I put the same kind of woman character in a contemporary film, but did not sacrifice her integrity at the end. The result is a melodrama that is strictly focused on the psychology of a woman character rather than on the happy resolution of a love affair.

Can you describe the connection between Never Forever and the rest of your films?

I see Never Forever as a coming of age story of a woman (a bildungsroman) more than a melodrama, which is also true, in different ways, of Gina Kim’s Video Diary and Invisible Light. For the ending, I wanted to make it clear that Sophie achieved what she longed for and, therefore, achieves happiness. The best way to imply that is to make her pregnant again since pregnancy carries a different meaning for Sophie than it does for typical female characters in melodrama. For Sophie, the fetus is what makes her realize what she really wants out of her life. It represents her desire, her dream, and ultimately, her life. So, when Sophie says, “This baby is mine,” during the climactic confrontation scene with Andrew, she is not talking about motherhood but is explicitly expressing the desire to live her own life. The irony is that what starts as a sacrifice for her husband, ends up becoming her self-fulfillment. In a way, Sophie became a whore in order to become a mother and ultimately, like Do-hee in Invisible Light, she blurs (and hopefully negates) the mother/whore stereotype. 

Basically, in all of my films -- my video art, my painting, my installations -- women's desire was at the center of all of my artwork. This film is not an exception, although it has a very strong genre template because it's a melodrama. I wanted to make it accessible for a general audience, and approachable without necessarily compromising the theme. What I really wanted to achieve in this film as far as female body and woman's desire goes is that I really wanted to make a very complex, even self-contradictory female character. In order to achieve that, I had to put multiple layers of irony on Sophie's body; for example, self-sacrifice becomes self-fulfillment. That's what happens in this movie: a mother becomes a whore; her body becomes language; she never talks but for some reason, through her body language -- through this very non-metaphysical, non-spiritual relationship -- she finds her true self. Everything is the opposite of what happens in a very conventional romantic comedy. I just basically wanted to come up with this very strong female character who was full of irony and complexity -- just like male characters in great films.

How did the casting decisions come about? Where did you find Vera Farmiga and Jung-woo Ha?

Never Forever is not a dialogue heavy film, so I was desperately looking for someone who could not only “play” the role, but who could become the role. I first saw Vera in Down to the Bone [2004, directed by Debra Granik] and was blown away by her performance. She has the ability to disappear into the character she plays. I sent her my script and we met at a small café in Soho. The minute she walked into the café, I was convinced that Vera was the Sophie that I’d been looking for. Vera is both transparent and mysterious. Her body always creates a cinematic tension within a frame. Her face is like a map with which we can explore a character’s heart. Thanks to her tremendous cinematic presence, I had relatively easy time creating the Sophie character without having to explain much with dialogue. The chemistry between Jung-woo and Vera as fellow artists was beyond belief. They didn’t want to meet each other before the shoot so that they could retain the mystery until the first day of shooting, and I decided to shoot the sex scenes in a sequential order so that I could exploit their real-life awkwardness and tension. Of course, that was risky, but it ended up working beautifully. I could feel the intimacy growing between the two actors from one scene to another.

Why is Jihah such an outsider in the film? He seems isolate from any distinct community or human interactions.

Jihah really is a true outsider. He of course, suffers from extreme isolation in the U.S., since he is an illegal immigrant. But he refuses to be part of Korean (or Korean American) community as well. Things could have been easier for him if he had chosen to compromise. But he stubbornly goes his own way in pursuit of his “American Dream.” I wanted Jihah to be a man of strong will, who is not afraid of loneliness and not willing to compromise his integrity by pretending to be someone other than himself.
Though Sophie and Jihah, my two main characters, speak English to each other, there is still very much an aspect of Korean identity that I wanted to insist on keeping in my film. The film is about the issue of national boundaries, issue of race and this issue of class.  And the issue of American-ness, Korean, Korean American -- everything is really melting into this very conventional but hopefully subversive and disturbing melodrama. 

This film is the first ever Korean and American co-production. The film premiered this year at Sundance and went on to open in Korea on June 21. Can you talk a bit about the Korean reception of the film? 

The film was very warmly received in Korea. Never Forever is a small NY indie film in the US but in Korea, it is a studio film. So the box office score DOES matter in Korea as much as the critical acclaims. We opened the film on 93 screens nation wide (for comparison, Spiderman opened on 800 screens in Korea) Never Forever was featured as cover of most of the major film magazines and made Vera and Jung-woo big stars. There are some hard core fans of the film who launched fan sites of the film. They are the kind of viewers who would watch the film more than 10 times and post their reviews on the websites.  I am extremely grateful for them. I think we originally were able to attract interest from the Korean audience due to the interracial relationship that the film depicts, but upon watching the film, they unanimously say that the racial element is very minor compared to the emotional landscape that the characters create. It is a story that celebrates the possibility of liberation through desire after all!