These Virtual Reality Films Are Blazing a New Trail in Storytelling and Art

Strap on a headset and find yourself on a flooding island halfway around the world or in the body of a Homeland Security interrogator.

Dan Schindel

Virtual reality offers intriguing possibilities for documentaries. Before the advent of workable VR, many saw cinema as the medium with the most potential to transport the audience. Now, you can strap on a headset and find yourself anywhere, whether it’s on an island halfway around the world or in someone else’s headspace.

At the Camden International Film Festival, the Storyforms program incorporated over a dozen different documentary VR shorts, showcasing this promise. CIFF is an arm of the Points North Institute, an organization which runs several programs for developing artists in nonfiction filmmaking. Continually on the forward of documentary trends, the festival has done a better job of incorporating VR into its lineup than many comparable festivals that run on a much larger scale.

Some of the shorts simply placed the user in the midst of different milieus. Anote’s Ark VR, Matthieu Rytz’s counterpart to his feature-length film Anote’s Ark, shows selections of life on Kiribati, an island nation threatened with total destruction by the rising tides of climate change. In one sequence, you are in the middle of a song and dance, with drummers to one side of you and singers on the other. In Gina Kim’s Bloodless, the “camera” moves, shepherding the user through the alleyways of a Dongducheon, a makeshift town next to a US Army base in South Korea. Eventually, you “meet” a sex worker in one alley — a stand-in for a real-life woman who was murdered in Dongducheon by an American soldier in 1992. The short goes on to show her living conditions by imitating her movements throughout the last hours of her life, illuminating what it’s like to eke out a living by shaving scraps off an occupying force.

Bloodless  (courtesy CIFF)

Bloodless (courtesy CIFF)

Benoit Felici and Mathias Chelebourg’s The Real Thing toys with the very idea of going to a “real” place in VR. Instead, it takes the user to a large-scale imitation: intricate sections of Chinese cities which are made to resemble parts of European cities like Paris, Venice, and London. There’s even a replica Eiffel Tower in Tianducheng, the sparsely populated “Sky City.” There are multiple dimensions of metafiction at play — real people living in real places which are copies of other real places, shown to you through a technological remove. Gliding over canals which you could easily mistake for the real Venice, you start to rethink what even counts as an authentic experience.

Other shorts involve an interactive element. In Kalina Bertin’s Manic VRyou use controllers to interact with what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder, at one point popping imaginary bubbles that float into view. For Asad Malik’s Terminal 3, visitors step into a replica airport security room and put on, not an Oculus, but a HoloLens, which projects an image of a young woman on the empty chair opposite them. The woman has returned to the US from a trip to visit family in Pakistan, and you take on the role of a Homeland Security interrogator — the short is programmed to respond to questions you ask aloud, and changes depending on which ones you choose to ask from those presented.

Not only does this implicate the user in American mistreatment of people of Middle Eastern descent, but the intimacy of the scene is gradually employed to a more fantastical effect. As it goes on, the hologram of the woman goes from a sketched-out wire frame image to a fully colored, more realistic one. She answers questions not as if she is sitting in an interrogation but on a first date, going into long monologues about her ideas on life. It transforms the cold setting into something deeper and friendly. Of course, perhaps someone who sticks to harsher questions will get a different outcome.

The immersion of VR will only grow greater as the tech improves. The possibilities are invigorating, especially in light of what creators are already able to do with the format. Works like the CIFF Storyforms are blazing a new trail in storytelling and art, and we’d do well to pay attention.

Empathy without exploitation

Is it possible to create a work of art about a murder without any depiction of brutality? Is it possible to convey a female victim’s suffering without exploiting her body? These were the questions director Gina Kim posed to herself during the creation of her virtual reality film “Bloodless.”

The work won the award for best virtual reality story at the recently concluded Venice International Film Festival. “Bloodless” is relatively bloodless. However, it is blood curdling, at an entirely different level, thanks to the VR experience.

Upon donning a Galaxy Gear VR headset, the viewer is transported to the current-day US Army camp town of Dongducheon in Gyeonggi Province. Korean residents walk by. US Army soldiers walk by. A woman, at once vivid and spectral, walks by, and we are allowed to witness the last few minutes of her life. 

It’s a quiet but shockingly immersive journey. The viewer feels very present in the area’s bleak streets, but is at once formless and helpless, unable to control anything that occurs. At the same time, the viewer is given immense freedom, one that we are not accustomed to in traditional, 2-D screen films: Our gaze is given the liberty to roam and focus on any aspect of the 360-degree environment we choose. A sense of inescapable seclusion is also present. Being locked into the virtual reality world through the mobile virtual reality headset is a solitary experience, unlike collectively watching a film in a theater.

A still from Gina Kim’s VR documentary film “Bloodless” (Gina Kim)

A still from Gina Kim’s VR documentary film “Bloodless” (Gina Kim)

“All the information is given in a very loosely connected way. That was my intention, for the viewer to soak it all in. This is a military camp town. I wanted to show them, how fascinating and how depressing it is,” Kim told The Korea Herald in an interview Thursday at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, where the film was available for viewing.

By the end of the 12-minute film, the viewer has witnessed the infamous 1992 murder on which this documentary film is based. The case involved a US Army soldier stationed in Dongducheon who brutally raped and killed a female Korean sex worker. The sensational media coverage of the horrific murder included images of the victim’s body lying naked in a room, drenched in blood with various objects inserted into various bodily orifices.

The murder suspect was arrested by Korean police two days later and turned over to the USFK authorities, per the Statute of Forces Agreement between the two countries. Mass protests demanding that the soldier be tried in the Korean courts ensued, and he was eventually sentenced to 15 years in jail by a Korean court.

“I took part in the protests as a college freshman,” said Kim, who was a Western art major at Seoul National University at the time. 

“Every time I saw (the victim's) brutally mutilated body being endlessly reproduced in posters and flyers, I saw her dignity being once again destroyed.” 

With the incident deeply entrenched in her mind, Kim struggled for 25 years to find a way to transpose the historical and political issue of camp town sex workers into a personal and concrete experience without the element of exploitation. 

“But I kept coming up against the fact that I could not cinematically represent the story without exploiting the image (of the victim) and thereby reproducing the original violence itself,” she said.

The “absence of the body” and a refusal to indulge in the gory details were the core ideas from which “Bloodless” sprouted. But how does one make people feel without showing the body? “That was a paradox to begin with,” Kim said. 

After careful construction, the feat has been achieved brilliantly in Kim’s film. 

The despair of the town, the melancholy of the dilapidated motel room where the crime occurred, the horror of the murder, the loneliness the victim must have felt during the last few minutes of her existence all seep through -- but not once is the woman’s naked body shown. Not a single brutal act is depicted. 

A still from Gina Kim’s VR documentary film “Bloodless” (Gina Kim)

A still from Gina Kim’s VR documentary film “Bloodless” (Gina Kim)

Though films dealing with murder cases and important historical events abound, almost all tend to harbor some inevitable element of voyeurism, Kim noted. Stories of violence in traditional cinema ultimately end up as variations of entertainment. 

“To put it very shortly and bluntly, any representation of anything is exploitation. But the question is, to what end? Where do you compromise?” 

After discovering VR a few years ago, Kim was stunned. This immersive medium, she felt, ensured that the viewer could no longer be a “passive spectator, who can take voyeuristic pleasure from a spectacle in front of them, and at a distance.”

“Bloodless” was shot with eight GoPro cameras. The images were stitched together in a technologically advanced and expensive post-production process. The venture was backed by Venta VR, a Korean producer of VR video content, and the Dankook University Graduate School of Cinematic Contents. 

The film set of Gina Kim’s VR documentary film “Bloodless” (Gina Kim)

The film set of Gina Kim’s VR documentary film “Bloodless” (Gina Kim)

VR has emerged as a new storytelling medium. Venice became the first film festival in the world to create a competition category for virtual reality films. It dedicated an entire island to its newly built, state-of-the art VR theaters. The upcoming Busan International Film Festival will also offer VR screenings. 

Until now, creators have focused on the “experience” aspect of virtual reality, which allows the viewer to be taken away to a fantastical world of animated gun fights and car chases. For Kim, however, VR meant a “completely new way of creating empathy.”

“A lot of people focus on the fact that it allows you to experience something. The question is ultimately, to what end? It’s fascinating, but to what end? Unless you do it carefully, it can become really sadistic, a self-indulgence of the creator. I wanted to do the opposite.”

Gina Kim poses with the Best Virtual Reality award for her movie “Bloodless” during the award ceremony of the 74th Venice Film Festival on Sept. 9 at Venice Lido. (AFP-Yonhap)

Gina Kim poses with the Best Virtual Reality award for her movie “Bloodless” during the award ceremony of the 74th Venice Film Festival on Sept. 9 at Venice Lido. (AFP-Yonhap)

It seems fitting that empathy lies as the heart of Kim’s works -- a “sense of dislocation” is what has come to define her, she said.

The 43-year-old filmmaker earned a master’s degree in film at the California Institute of the Arts and taught at Harvard University’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. Kim, who has served as a jury member at the Venice film fest, is currently a professor of film at the University of California, Los Angeles.

During her time in Harvard, in particular, surrounded by mostly Caucasian, male professors, Kim had felt an extreme sense of displacement. The department did not have a single Korean student back then. 

“There are two sides to it. Once you realize that you’re so extremely different from the rest of the group, in the end, you basically give up the idea of trying to fit in. That perspective can be nurturing and nourishing as an artist.

“But there is also a need for support. If you don’t have that group of people who really understand you and inspire you, it can become very isolating and difficult. But ultimately, I believe that people should be allowed to be who they are, beyond anybody’s expectations.”

Gina Kim is photographed on a film set. (Gina Kim)

Gina Kim is photographed on a film set. (Gina Kim)

But Kim believes the sense of being an outsider reaches beyond differences in nationality. Regardless of the environment, there are types of people who inherently feel out of place, Kim said. “You could have lived in one place your whole life, surrounded by homogenous people, and still feel distanced from your setting. Actually, I believe that anybody who is keenly aware of this and in search of his or her identity feels that way.” 

These days, the constitution of her classrooms is becoming increasingly diverse, she pointed out.

“One student was Arabic and raised in the UK but still wore a hijab. Yet she is completely British. Do I want to define her as either? That would be so silly. She’s both and more. The total can be greater than the sum of each element. People are diverse and that’s healthy.” 

Every film Kim has worked on has involved a co-production by two or more countries, with multinational actors. 

In 1995, upon moving to the US, Kim shot “Gina Kim’s Video Diary,” which presents a vision of the modern female nomad traveling fluidly between Asia and America, and was screened at the Berlin Film Festival. “Invisible Light” (2003) tracks the physical and psychological journeys of two Korean and Korean-American women. “Never Forever” (2007), the first coproduction between the US and Korea, engages the conventions of melodrama to examine gender, sexuality, race and class. 

“Final Recipe” (2013) is a Thai-Korean production and the first English-language film made by an Asian director with an all-Asian cast. 

Such transnational film projects are widely regarded as risky. Failing to deliver a coherent cultural voice, projects often end up a jumble and a flop, unable to relate to any target country’s audience. 

“I think ultimately, (transnational film projects) should come down to one last voice -- that of the director,” said Kim. “Someone who really understands the meaning of diversity.” 

Kim’s films have received varied responses in different countries. In Korea, “Never Forever” was seen as transcending the typical melodrama genre. In France, critics focused more on the issues of class. 

“You can’t speak to different groups of people on the same note, probably,” she said. “But there is a universal, common thread that can resonate to everyone, albeit in different ways. It’s important to find it. And it cannot be faked.”

“Bloodless” will be screened at the Busan International Film Festival, which will take place from Oct. 12-21. 

By Rumy Doo (


Text: Kee Chang Images: Lee Kang Hoon Posted: 5 June, 2017

During an insightful Tribeca Talks: Directors Series at the Gotham-based festival earlier this year, Alejandro G. Iñárritu told Marina Abramović that, since 2009—in the lead up to Biutiful (2010), and later, Birdman (2014)—he grew disinterested in exploring realism. “It was not adding anything, enhancing anything, or revealing another reality to me,” said the Mexican director. At the Cannes Film Festival last month, Iñárritu unveiled Carne y Arena, a six-and-a-half minute virtual reality exhibition. It takes as its subject the horrors of refugees—based on first-hand interviews and research—and coming up through Central America and Mexico, attempting to enter the U.S. Asked to elaborate on his earlier statement by Cannes director Thierry Frémaux, Iñárritu was brief: “Everything I want to say is here. No applause. No more two-hour rhetoric or political speeches.”

Filmmaker Gina Kim brings her own VR project, Bloodless, to the Seoul International Women’s Film Festival this month. The 360° “film” traces the last living moments of a real-life sex worker who was brutally murdered by a U.S. soldier at Dongducheon—often referred to as “camp town,” one of the most significant sites of fraternization between prostitutes and American GIs—in South Korea in 1992. Kim’s 12-minute immersion was filmed on location where the crime took place, bringing to light not only an isolated case, but also the ongoing realities of comfort women at the camp towns that have existed since the 1950s around U.S. military bases. The viewers are witness to what millions of words fail to express. It’s not documentary, but another kind of film. With Bloodless, VR is again a potent tool for experiential film and experiments in social technology.

Seoul International Women’s Film Festival comes to a close on June 7.

VR has become an important ingredient at film festivals, and it’s great to see so much variety in the format. There was Broken Night at Tribeca and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Carne y Arenaat Cannes more recently. With Bloodless, did you start with the format or subject matter?

I was interested in the subject matter for a long time. I participated in a protest when the crime took place because they were basically trying to bury the case. In the end, the perpetrator was put on trial in the Korean court system, which was the first time that ever happened. Throughout that process, the issue of camp town sex workers really stayed in my mind. No one wants to talk about it in Korea because it’s so politically controversial. There’s so much national shame in Korea about this issue. So I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.

I actually tried to make a feature film about it, but there was always this issue of representation, especially with the mutilated female body. What happened while I protested as a college freshman was that somehow the photo of the mutilated body from the crime scene got out. That image was reproduced everywhere. I saw it and just knew it was really, really wrong. That should not have happened. We should not have used that for the campaign. Ever since, I felt that this story should be retold in a proper manner. But every time I tried to make a feature film out of it, I always ran into the same dilemma: How do I tell this story without showing the incident, without showing the body? Any representation of violence is violence itself. I didn’t want to reproduce violence. So that was really difficult and I struggled with it for so long. I got close to the script stage and things like that, but I had to put it aside in the end because something didn’t feel right. Last year, I moderated a forum about VR—I took a crash course because I was pretty ignorant about VR up to that point—and it really dawned on me that, my god, this should be the medium to tell this story. With VR, you don’t have the luxury of being a voyeur, comfortably sitting there at a distance from the world on screen. That’s when I realized I should really go for it with VR.

It’s interesting to look at the value of traditional documentaries versus documentary subject VR. With a feature doc, maybe you have emotional talking heads and overload it with information. With VR, it’s completely sensory and experiential. It’s really exciting stuff.


Crimes persisted in large numbers for a long time in these camp towns prior to this specific murder case. Why was this incident singled out? Why did it become such national trauma?

Because it was so brutal. That was the thing. Camp town women, or camp town prostitution, in Korea have been persistent since the 1950s. It’s always there. But things change. In the 70s, the Korean government tried to regulate the camp towns in order to have a better control over the area, which ended up repressing these women even more. And the condition for the camp town women got worse and worse from then on. Then the incident in 1992 was the one time it became an open subject. They wanted people to respond with gut reactions like, “Oh my god! We have to do something!” In that sense, it was successful. But on the other hand, what about her? That was always my point: What about her? Even today, it’s really hard to find documents and background stories about the woman. I could only find a couple things. And I didn’t want to bother the family because it’s not just about her anyway. We’re not dealing with just one individual or one particular case. I wanted to be able to talk about broader themes. Still, it just felt wrong to use that image. It’s total exploitation, no matter what you’re trying to do. So that really was my starting point with this project.

What’s it like to walk around in Dongducheon? It looks seedy. Is it really dangerous?

It’s gotten much better. Nowadays, most sex workers who live and work there aren’t Korean. They’re mostly from Southeast Asia. And this is why that area is so little talked about: There used to be levels of prostitution in Korea. The camp town sex workers was the lowest rank. Once you go there to work as a prostitute, a barterer, or a hostess or however you want to call it, you can’t come out of that community—ever. Korean society will not accept you because there is stigma and now you’re filthy. You’re no longer part of Korean society and that’s the consensus. The Korean economy is the one of the biggest national economies in the world right now but, in the 50s and 60s, Korea was an extremely depressing place to be in. We were so poor. But now we’re not. So Korean women don’t want to work there. They have moved onto other jobs and other areas of entertainment. So at one point, there were a lot of Russian women. At one point, there were a lot of Korean-Chinese women, Korean descendants in China who would come here without papers to work. Again, now it’s mostly Southeast Asian women. And they say that it’s not as dangerous, but you see drug dealers. It’s not the safest place to be walking around in at all. Things still happen. Crimes do happen there. People carry guns around there, which you never ever see in Korea. That alone gives me chills. And Korean citizens aren’t allowed to enter.

How did you enter?

Well, technically, that area called “special tourism zone for foreigners” itself isn’t restricted, but the clubs and bars are foreign passports only.

Did you have to get a permit to film there or was this shot guerilla style?

We shot guerilla style. But this isn’t about specific stores or bars or anything. It’s not scandalous in that sense. We just kind of filmed it. If anybody asked, we were actually pretty honest and straightforward about it: “I’m a professor from the United States and we’re documenting this place because it has so much meaning and cinematic charm.” That’s what we told them, without mentioning all the details. There was so no time for that. It would be too complicated.

Where do you predict VR will be in ten years time, as it relates to film and entertainment?

It will probably stay in the experimental documentary realm. It doesn’t have a large audience outside of some investigative journalism film like No End in Sight by Charles Ferguson or experimental documentary like Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of KillingThe Act of Killing was actually something that I thought about a lot. It has its own problems, but then it kept asking questions about representation: What’s truthful representation? What’s the most ethical way to do that? I was trying to answer the same questions with this film because I believe any representation in the end is exploitation, no matter what you do. There’s pleasure in whatever you do. There’s self-interest, which means you have this curiosity that you want to satisfy. If you already think that is exploitation, then any representation of any story or any rendition of any incident is exploitation. But as long as you keep asking the question in a legitimate way while letting the audience or the readers know that this is not a perfect representation of reality, because there’s no such thing, then you have certain legitimacy in creating something.

You’re always good about breaking stereotypes in your work. For instance, Never Forevercenters on a relationship between a white woman and an Asian man, which we so seldom see in film and TV. What does it take to sexualize Asian men in Western entertainment?

Well, the thing is that I’m Korean-Korean. I’m not Korean-American. I was born and raised in Korea and lived here. I went to university in Korea and my whole family is in Korea. I’m a Korean living in the United States. So whenever people tell me that I’m Asian-American, I have to think about what that really means. It’s a foreign concept to me, though now I’m getting used to it. And the idea of “Asian American,” that your race overrules your nationality is very specific to America. Anywhere else in the world, we don’t necessarily use the terminology “Asian” in that same type of way. In terms of representation in cinema, we just weathered all these storms, right? There’s Ghost in the Shell and things like that. All I can say is that diversity matters; because democracy matters. It’s not that any specific race is smarter or need to be entitled, or whatever. Diversity matters, period, for democracy.


It always comes back to equality.

It’s all about equality. And secondly, which is less talked about, diversity is complicated. At UCLA, I have students from all over the world with diverse backgrounds. I have an Arab student who wears a hijab who was born and raised in the UK and speaks perfect British-English. She sees herself as both Arab and British. How do you define her? Another student of mine is Chinese and from Trinidad. She identifies as Trinidadian, but in the United States she’s Asian-American, which she’s not. It can’t be face value. Also, I have a Korean-American student who studied extensively in Africa, and she doesn’t know too much about Korea at all. If you expect her to be a certain way because she looks Korean-American, she looks puzzled. So this is another thing that we really need to ponder about. People are who they are, beyond and despite our own expectations, positions, and projections. That’s the bottom line.

There are fewer opportunities for female directors. There’s no disputing that. How much more difficult is it for Asian women? You’ve had highly visible projects in the industry.

I really can’t say specifically about Hollywood or the American indie world because I’m not sure I can say that I’m totally in it. But certainly, in Korea, there are a lot more women directors than when I made my first feature film. What’s really interesting is that there are a lot more people who talk bad things about women directors. We feel as though we’re grouped together and also pushed away. When I made my first fiction feature called Invisible Light, they would be like, “You made this film, you’re Gina Kim, and you happen to be a woman.” That was the storyline for me. Now, the fact that I’m a woman comes first, before when they see me as Gina Kim, a director. “She’s a female film director” comes first, and with that comes the baggage and attachments. Not so nice ones usually, which is really disappointing and disheartening and frustrating. We just have to let go of these preconceptions. It’s the same thing we were talking about with diversity. We should just allow people to be who they are—beyond our own expectations.


You’re the first Korean filmmaker to have a co-production film with America. You’ve pushed for transnational casting. You made the first Korean film to get wide release in China. You were the first Asian woman to teach in your department at Harvard. You’re a pioneer.

It all starts with the individual identity as an artist, rather than concepts. If I ever try to make a film based on some concept—”I’m going to make a transnational film!”—and create a story within those limits, I don’t think that would work very well. It’s just that I happen to be Korean who lives in the States. I still have a Korean identity, and the complexity and depth of character that comes with that. I’m a person with a unique view of the world because I’m a transnational and nomadic being. So in terms of identity, I’m really in the margins. At the same time, I somehow ended up making universal stories out of that. I was luckily able to make my feature films in the mainstream filmmaking world because both Never Forever and Final Recipe were studio films. I feel lucky. I hope people will stay really open and flexible and keep trying. I think the numbers really matter, meaning, we need way more female film directors. We need way more Asian actors in Hollywood. The numbers have to increase. Then we’ll have diversity and different voices within that as well. It will empower.

John Cho will play a gay man on Difficult People. We need progress by leaps and bounds.

Yeah, and I thought Rogue One was very diverse, too. I really liked it. It felt really natural. It didn’t feel disingenuous like, “We have to fill this quota” sort of thing. With sci-fi, I think it’s easier. There are all kinds of ways to tackle these issues. The point is: We have to keep trying.

You’re currently teaching at UCLA in the School of Theater, Film and Television. What do you find are the questions that students ask most these days?

About the future of cinema. [Laughs] VR, AR [augmented reality], all the new platforms in cinema, the concept of seriality, Netflix and Amazon… Things are changing really, really rapidly. They ask me, “How do we prepare for the next generation in the world full of new technology? What do we need to do?” But the other big question is, actually, about diversity. And not from a political angle, but in terms of: “How do we educate these students who have transnational identities? What’s the best way to nurture their really unique and individual voices?” So that’s something that we really focus on. That’s something that I try to teach my students. It’s really about developing individual voices that’s most important and being able to find the new technology and medium that can facilitate those voices.

You’re a great authority on that. There are countless examples of filmmakers being super resistant to stuff like VR, because that would require change. You’re very fluid and open to change. You flirt with experimental work, fiction, documentary, and new technologies.

For one thing, I’m a very curious person. Whenever there’s a new medium, I try to at least try it out. That comes out of curiosity and being excited about new things. Also, the world is changing. It’s inevitable that we will have to get used to new things. Cellphones! Who would’ve thought? Think back to 20 years ago. It was unheard of. The Internet? I grew up with no social media, or even the concept of it. It’s really foreign to me still. Now it rules the world. You just need to adapt. You have to at least try to embrace the zeitgeist and try something so you’re breathing the same air with the rest of the world. [Laughs] Sometimes artists can be too private, living in their own caves, and doing the same thing over and over and over again. To me, that goes against the very idea of creativity. Creativity is all about challenges and coming up with new solutions. So I think the clash between new media and traditional cinema is a healthy one. They complement each other. We don’t really need to define what it is because it’s about how it moves people, motivates people, and inspires people—those are the relevant questions. It’s not about what it is or how pure it is.

What can you reveal about your next project?

I have a very female-driven crime drama/thriller set in Korea. It’s a feature film and that will hopefully be my next project. And I’m actually going to expand on Bloodless. I’ll visit other sites that hold the memories and traumas of sex workers in camp towns. It will be a camp town women VR series. It works so well with VR and it’s so specific. You should be there to experience what it’s really like. There’s something very ghostly about the characters that show up in VR. They call it the “digital uncanny” and that’s what I was trying to explain at the VR forum earlier today as well. As Freud put it, the repressed memory comes back as a ghost. These figures that you see or meet in a VR film are real and sometimes they’re hyperreal. There’s a very interesting thing going on because you yourself don’t have a body in that space. You have the gaze, but not the body.


Berlinale Women Directors: Meet Gina Kim

"Asia is often misrepresented or misunderstood in media. It's an 'exotic other' for mainstream culture in the West. As an Asian female filmmaker, I wanted to celebrate Asia through elements other than martial arts or exotic landscapes. We figured food and family are something uniquely Asian, but also universal that can appeal to larger audience."

South Korea-born director Gina Kim is best known for the critically acclaimed drama Never Forever (2007), starring Vera Farmiga as a woman struggling to conceive a child with her infertile husband. Her fifth and latest feature, Final Recipe, is a collaboration with executive producer Michelle Yeoh, who also co-stars as the powerful TV producer of a cooking contest. Final Recipe is the result of Kim and Yeoh's efforts to work together on a pan-Asian production.

Final Recipe will play at this year's Berlinale.

Please give us your description of the film.
Final Recipe is the coming-of-age story of a young boy who enters a culinary competition to save his family's restaurant. It's a story of forgiveness and love as much as food and cooking.

What drew you to this story?
Asia is often misrepresented or misunderstood in media. It's an "exotic other" for mainstream culture in the West. As an Asian female filmmaker, I wanted to celebrate Asia through elements other than martial arts or exotic landscapes. I figured food and family are something uniquely Asian, but also something universal that can appeal to a larger audience.

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
Casting. The film features characters with diverse ethnic backgrounds and nationalities. I wanted to stay truthful to the character descriptions in their accents and demeanors and so ended up inviting actors from all over the world -- Australia, France, Canada, Korea, the U.S., Singapore, Thailand, Japan, etc.

What advice do you have for other female directors?
Do not be intimidated by numbers or statistics. Bet against the odds.

What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?
People love to label woman directors and [pigeonhole] us into a particular genre or theme. But I make experimental films, video art, essay films, documentaries, as well as big feature films. It confuses people (which I don't mind, to be honest). To me, making film is a way to make peace with the environment that I'm in. It's a way to accommodate my desperate need to embrace a world that's beyond my comprehension, and I need all kinds of forms and genres to express my love for it.

Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?
As someone who started her career as a video artist, I'm rather optimistic about it. The Internet allows small films (as well as home videos) to be widely seen. Although video artists in the 1960s saw the potential in the medium, they didn't have a way to make their works available for general audience. Now it is possible. Despite its flaws and negative sides, I mostly see in it new potential for the democratization of the medium.

Name your favorite women directed film and why.
Beau Travail by Claire Denis. She reversed thousands years of art history (male voyeur gazing at female) in one shot.

For director, video art opens door to world

A Korean woman who hasn’t been a film director that long has rejoined the faculty of Harvard University to teach about what she knows about film production.

Gina Kim - who is known for “Never Forever,” released in 2007, and “Final Recipe,” currently in production - is teaching a class on film production in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University for a year.

The director, 39, came into the international spotlight in the early 2000s as her feature-length films “Gina Kim’s Video Diary” (2002) and “Invisible Light” (2003) garnered impressive critical acclaim and were shown at prestigious film festivals, including the Berlin International Film Festival.

That led Harvard to notice the director. In 2004, she became the first Asian film director to teach at the school.

As a full-time lecturer at Harvard University’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, she taught between 2004 and 2007. So she isn’t an entirely new face at the school. Kim was ambitious about this academic year.

“I’ll be teaching both theories and practical exercises about film production,” she told the JoongAng Sunday. “I might also take up a master class, which teaches advanced film production process. I’m also thinking of holding a seminar that touches on everything about film drama that includes music and costumes.”

The Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard has been inviting film directors who are active in the field to give lectures at the school at least once a year, so that students are not just confined in ivory towers and can learn about the latest trends from active professionals. To give variety, they hire such people on one-year contracts. Lecturers have included Spike Lee, the award-winning American film director known for “Malcolm X” (1992).

Ambassador for Korean film

Still, it was a surprise when Harvard invited Kim, a female director who has just stepped into the film industry. So what did Harvard see in her?

“As ‘Gina Kim’s Video Diary,’ which was performance video art, and ‘Invisible Light’ which was an experimental play, received spotlight at international film festivals, books about them came out and some dissertations also mentioned them,” Kim said. “Torino Film Festival also held a special showing of them. I heard that a faculty member at Harvard University saw that by accident and sent me an invitation.”

While most film directors return to their job after a year of teaching, Kim worked as a full-time lecturer for three years straight. She said she had a reason.

“Harvard at that time was different from what it is today. It was like a closed society. Korea was barely known. Although it was years after the film ‘Oldboy’ made international headlines, people still had no concept of Korean film whatsoever. That prompted me to organize a Korean film festival. I heard it was the first such attempt at an Ivy League school.”

At the festival, she showed 15 representative Korean films from the 1960s to the present. The reception was better than she expected. She got calls from museums in Boston and New York, which wanted to hold a similar event. She said she got a letter from the dean that thanked her for the event that facilitated cultural exchanges and requested her to continue teaching.

And since about two to three years ago, she said she got requests from the school to return. Although she had been hesitant due to the film production she is working on, she finally decided to go back and teach, at least for the 2013 academic year.

In love with video art

Kim studied art in college and received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Seoul National University.

When asked if she wanted to be a filmmaker as a young girl, she said she never really thought of what she wanted to “become,” but only what she wanted to “do” or “make.” When Kim was a senior, a visual arts media class was offered for the first time at SNU. She said that’s when she learned how interesting video art is.

“I could understand why feminist artists in the U.S. were passionate about it when video art first emerged in the 1960s,” said Kim. “I was also attracted because it was a largely unexplored territory in Korea at that time, although it is now a generalized field. It was pretty revolutionary, I thought then, and that I should do it.”

She wanted to study at the graduate school of the California Institute of the Arts, which is known for its courses in film production. And she decided to be bold. She flew to Los Angeles and met with a professor at the school. She showed some of her work and said that she wished to study at CalArts. Her boldness worked. She was admitted not long after.

To Kim, video art opened a door to the world.

“I felt that it was a world that wasn’t defined yet, that had no language yet. Although it was dominated by male artists, it wasn’t masculinized yet,” she said. “Also, video art is all about instant feedback. You can also create while watching. It is a little bit narcissistic in that sense, totally different from other media that I’ve worked with.”

She said that the reason people give their best when drawing in a small room or writing a poem alone is because of the potential audience, an expectation toward unknown mass that the artist has never known or met. And video art is all about communicating and sharing with the audience.

The most democratic tool

Since she was young, Kim had been deeply interested in social issues, mostly due to her father, who studied social studies for a long time.

Although she pursued a bachelor degree in fine arts, her passion for social revolution stayed in her heart. She constantly struggled with what she thought were the limits of paintings, in particular in terms of communication with the public.

Her encounter with video art, in that sense, was destiny. She said she thought “no other medium is as democratic as video art.”

In fact, her early works appear to have clear messages. When asked whether which is more important to her when making films, “messages” or “popular appeal,” she said that “such a category in itself is an oppression.”

“I am a liberalist to the bone,” the director said with a laugh. “I think, in particular, Korea likes to categorize things by one standard. However, I don’t want to live like that. There are so many different sides and facets to consider.”

Kim did have her own definition of what a movie is. She quoted one of her professors at her graduate school, who said that “cinema translates time into space.”

“How to translate the memories of time into space, how to play something that we see into a story - isn’t that what film is about?” said Kim.

The latest story she told the audience was about a dangerous affair between a married woman and an immigrant worker in her 2007 film “Never Forever.” After reading Kim’s script, renowned Korean film director Lee Chang-dong and Lee Joon-dong, the CEO of Now Films, wanted to produce it. Other Hollywood producers joined the crew.

The film, a collaboration between Korean and American producers, stars Vera Farmiga, who is known for her role in the 2006 film “The Departed,” and Ha Jung-woo, who was a new face back then but is now a Korean heartthrob. It premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and was awarded the Jury Prize at the 2007 Deauville American Film Festival.

On the film, Variety wrote, “Kim’s highly sensitive camera turns the film into a chamber-piece of hushed eroticism and surprising narrative grip.” Martin Scorsese has also described the film as “a moving experience [in which] the performances are wonderful and touching, and the style ... intense and very precise.”

Five stories to tell

Kim says that she first saw Ha in “The Unforgiven” at the Busan International Film Festival in 2005. She said she, and many other directors, took note of him, saying that he is more than a pretty face and has the presence of a Korean movie star in the ’60s and ’70s.

After the critical success of “Never Forever,” Kim began to expand her influence. She was the first Korean female director to become a jury member for the 66th Venice Film Festival, and she became a member of the jury of the Asian Pacific Screen Awards in 2009.

She is currently is completing a China-Korea co-production film, “Final Recipe.” Starring Michelle Yeoh, the film has already gotten several invitations to renowned international film festivals. The film also features Henry of the Korean boy band Super Junior-M.

Kim said Yeoh “is the pro of the pros.” While shooting in Thailand in the sizzling weather of more than 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), there were more than 50 fire pots on the set but the actress never made an outtake.

Kim said that Yeoh also took time to show up at the set even though she was not shooting, saying that she wants to absorb the “vibe” of the set so that she can better immerse herself in her character and the story. While staying in the U.S. for a year to teach at Harvard, Kim plans to hold a large-scale exhibition on Seoul, her second project to let the world know about Korea. In addition, she also hopes to organize an exhibition on actresses.

“In today’s film industry, it is harder for actresses than it is for actors to have a ‘strong persona.’ But after working with some charismatic actresses like Vera Farmiga and Michelle Yeoh, I got to re-think about that.”

When asked about film directors, she said that it is the director’s role to “melt everything that he or she has into the film and help people feel every bit of it.”

“I have about five stories I want to tell before I die,” said Kim. “I wish to make them all into films.”

Park Shin-hong


Korean Filmmaker Becomes Professor At Harvard

A Korean filmmaker has been appointed full-time professor at Harvard University. 

Gina Kim, a film director active in the U.S., was made professor in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University, Massachusetts, on Friday. 

Kim is known for her work not only as a director but also as a documentary filmmaker and academic. 

Her films explore issues such as gender, race, and diaspora. They also contain elements of Korean culture. 

Kim's works include "Gina Kim's Video Diary," which was completed in 2002, "Never Forever" (2007); "Invisible Light" (2003); and "Faces of Seoul" (2009). "Gina Kim's Video Diary" became one of her most noted documentaries.

"Never Forever," which starred top Korean actor Ha Jung-woo and American actress Vera Farmiga, is representative of her Korean-foreign works. 

She is currently working on a film, "Final Recipe." 

Kim graduated from Seoul National University where she studied art, and went on to receive her master's degree at the California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles County. 

She has already taught at Harvard University as a full-time lecturer from 2004 to 2007. 

She was the first Asian director to be invited to lecture at Harvard. 

The Department of Visual and Environmental Studies includes classes in studio arts and in theory. It offers courses in painting, drawing, sculpting, printmaking, design, film, video, animation and photography. 

Only current directors, who are still actively pursuing their career in filmmaking, are invited to be faculty in the department. Thus, contracts are often based on shorter terms. 

Kim will teach at Harvard for one year as a full-time lecturer, and will also aid students in their graduation pieces. 

She will also participate in a large-scale exhibition along with other U.S. video artists and musicians. The theme of the exhibition is Seoul.

Kwon Ji-youn


2011 Korean Cinema Blogathon: An Interview with Director Gina Kim

My contribution to the 2011 Korean Cinema Blogathon, curated by the great sites New Korean Cinema and cine AWESOME!, is this previously unpublished interview with Seoul-born and US-based filmmaker and video artist Gina Kim, whose films are very much centered on the female body and female desire.  Her keenly observed self-portraits and fictional character studies are both emotionally intense and intellectually rigorous. Kim first gained attention with her 2002 video work Gina Kim's Video Diary, a 157-minute film edited from hundreds of hours of footage documenting her move to the US, her extreme isolation from being alone with no friends and family and speaking little English, and her struggles with anorexia and bulimia.  The film combines performance art and documentary to create a fascinating, intimate self-portrait.  These themes continued with Kim first fiction feature Invisible Light (2003), set in both Korea and the US, telling the stories of two women in each country, connected by an unseen man; one is the woman he has been having affair with, and the other is the man's wife.  Invisible Light, though fictional, retains the confessional, intimate nature of the video diaries, and its focus on the female body: one of the women suffers from eating disorders, and the other is pregnant and must make a decision on whether to keep the child.

Kim moved from the avant-garde, experimental nature of Gina Kim's Video Diary and Invisible Light with Never Forever (2007), a US/Korean co-production set in New York, and influenced by both Hollywood melodramas by Douglas Sirk and, more importantly, by Korean 50's and 60's "Golden Age" films such as Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid (1960), Han Hyung-mo's Madame Freedom (1956), and Shin Sang-ok's The Houseguest and My Mother (1961).  Kim was inspired by the way these films depicted women's struggles to follow their desires, even though the endings of these films thwart and deny the fulfilling of these desires.  Kim wanted to put a similar character in a contemporary setting, but allow the character to go all the way in achieving her desires, and to be completely in control of her destiny.  Never Forever's protagonist is Sophie (Vera Farmiga), a Caucasian woman married to Andrew, a successful Korean-American lawyer (David L. McInnis).  Their marriage is threated by their failure to conceive a child, driving Andrew to suicidal despair, since it is his weak sperm which is the source of their inability to have a child.  Unable to find a solution at a fertility clinic, Sophie has a chance meeting with Jihah (Ha Jung-woo), an Korean illegal immigrant, and come up with an impulsive, radical pan: she pays Jihah to have sex with her so that she can be impregnated -- $300 for each session, with a $30,000 bonus if she conceives.  Although Sophie tries to keep it all a strictly business transaction, these intimate encounters inevitable lead to deeper feelings and a conflict with her relationship with Andrew, who she still very much loves.  Although formally Never Forever is more conventional than Kim's previous films, its depiction of Sophie's character and her trajectory, not to mention the racial aspect of the scenario, complicates it melodramatic story in radical and startling ways.

Kim returns to the video diary format in her latest work, Faces of Seoul, a very personal travel diary assembled from her annual return visits to her hometown.  My interview with Gina Kim was conducted in 2007, shortly after Never Forever's New York premiere as the closing-night film of the Asian-American International Film Festival.

How did you get started in image making and filmmaking?

I don’t really have an artist background in my family; I always thought I would end up in academia like my father.  But when I was a senior in high school, I realized that I loved drawing, I loved painting, and I loved to touch things and to create things, so why can’t I do that for a living? So after that, I went to art school at Seoul National University, majoring in painting.  But I was more interested in multimedia art, installations, and performance art.  When I was a senior, I took a class in video art, and I was instantly fascinated by this new medium.  I was completely blown away, because you could be so personal and so political at the same time with this medium.  I thought this is what I really wanted to do, because it can be a really powerful tool for what I want to say to the world. 

Obviously, the representation of the female body is a big theme in your work.  So could you talk about the genesis of your video diary?

I started keeping my video diary when I was a senior in 1995, when I first started to take that video art class.  And that was the first time I ever touched a video camera.  I was obsessed with documenting my everyday life from then on.  I was really fascinated by the immediacy of this medium, and how you can present very mundane, trivial things in a beautiful way.  Back then, I was desperately clinging to the last stages of my adolescent life.  I wanted to grow up very badly, but at the same time I didn’t know how to.   I didn’t have any role models as a female artist living in Korea, and I was extremely frustrated.  I just didn’t know what to do, so I made these confessional video diaries every day.  Then I decided to come to California to major in art, and from then on my video diary became a huge part of my life.  When I was in Korea, I had friends, I had family.  But transitioning from Seoul to Los Angeles was a huge cultural shock for me.  I wasn’t really prepared to study abroad at all.  I didn’t speak English, and I had no friends or family.  So the video camera was really all I had.  I kept the video diary almost every day, just so that I didn’t feel isolated and lonely.  I didn’t know what to do with the video diaries for a long time, so I just kept them.  But when I graduated from Cal Arts, I decided to make a video documentary out of this footage, which was something like 800 hours.

How did you go from that to your first feature, Invisible Light

Editing the video diaries together was a real labor.  It took me two years, and it was really painful to watch that footage again.  But when I completed it, I could tell that I’d grown out of it completely, and now could consider myself a mature artist, and no longer a little girl struggling to find her own identity in this rough world.  I wanted to carry the themes that I explored with my video diary to the next stage, and to approach a larger audience.  And for me that meant that I should make a feature film.  Because I had to reach a larger audience, what I thought back then was I should be able to put some distance between myself and my work of art.  In my video diary there was no distance between me and the work, it’s like an epic version of narcissism. (Laughs) Actually both projects sort of happened simultaneously, because while I was editing the video diary, some beautiful images would come up to my mind every once in a while, and so I took notes in my journal, and that basically became the script of Invisible Light, which was also about female identity, sexuality, eating disorders, unwanted pregnancy – issues which resonate with my convictions as a feminist artist.

Once again, these themes carry into your new film, Never Forever. Compared to your other work, Never Forever more closely resembles what people would think of as conventional narrative cinema.  You said that with Invisible Light, you wanted to reach a wider audience, so with Never Forever, was it the same thing?

Yes, definitely.  I think I try to reach larger and larger audiences.  Not necessarily compromising my integrity or the themes or anything, but as I get older, I guess I just want to be able to communicate with more people.

When writing Never Forever, I was hugely inspired by Korean melodramas of the 60’s, and also Hollywood melodramas, like Douglas Sirk’s films, especially All That Heaven Allows, and Written on the Wind.  But at the same time, because of my background, and because of my convictions as an artist, my film is much more character-driven. And unlike those other melodramas, the female character is the most important element of this film.  Usually, in conventional melodramas, the relationship and how they solve the problems that they face is the key element.  The plot itself becomes the most important thing, and who ends up with who is the most important question in the end.  But I wanted to subvert that, because for me that’s not as important as my female character finding her own identity.  I use the basic grammar of melodrama in my film, but the way I tell the story is rather unconventional, because I focus on Sophie’s character more than anything else, and I try to eliminate everything else that might defuse integrity of that character.

A big element of your film is the interracial relationship, which brings to mind other films, like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amourand Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which both deal with the same issues.  Did these films inspire you when you were writing the script?

I wasn’t really inspired by them when I was writing this film.  It just kind of poured out of me in three days, so I didn’t really think about these issues, like interracial issues, religion, and class.  But after I finished the script, as I was preparing to pitch this project to producers, I was forced to think about similar films so I could make examples.  And from then on I was consciously looking for great films I could make reference to.  And those are the films I could find, like Fassbinder’s film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, [Jean-Jacques Annaud’s] The Lover.  There are some daring films that challenge the stereotypical notions of interracial relationships, but it’s so rare to find [films with] a relationship between an East Asian man and a Caucasian woman. Hiroshima Mon Amour and The Lover were about the only films I could find.

What is remarkable about your film is the use of space and silence, and how the characters communicate with their bodies primarily. And this is also connected to the fact that both Sophie and Jihah are in situations where they can’t use their own language very much. Could you talk a little more about your depictions of communication with the body rather than speech?

Well, my ambition was to make the characters talk through their bodies rather than language.  I wanted to put multiple layers of irony on a female body, so that a mother becomes a whore, a whore becomes a mother, and her language becomes her body.  Sophie’s words can be deceptive, but her body is not.  When she’s making love to her husband, she’s completely submissive, and is just trying to accommodate her husband.  But in the sex scenes with Jihah, it’s completely the opposite.  To make Sophie and Jihah fall in love was a real challenge, because theirs is a very peculiar relationship, it’s like a business transaction.  They don’t meet in the normal sense.  Yes, they have sex, but it’s completely dry and clinical, like a medical procedure.  It was almost like words were forbidden because of their situation.  I felt that each sex scene should show how their feelings for each other are evolving.  For the first sex scene, I had to completely destroy the audience’s usual expectations, which is actually very hard, because Sophie/Vera is a beautiful, blonde woman.  So I had to come up with a clever way to surprise, almost intimidate the audience, even, so that they can be completely overwhelmed by Sophie’s presence and her dignity.  So in that scene, she strips herself in such a stark way that Jihah is completely intimidated, and actually scared, and the audience feels that too.

But as this sexual relationship progresses, they begin to see each other as human beings; at one point, Jihah asks Sophie if he’s hurting her. Although it’s still a business transaction, a humane interaction starts to happen.  After that, they have their fight in the Chinese restaurant, and their lovemaking for the first time becomes passionate and real.  And I think she’s already pregnant by that point.  And because she’s pregnant, she gets her desire back.  There’s a line in Invisible Light that says, “It’s as if the baby inside me is longing for its father.” 

Could you talk a little more about the two Korean men – Jihah and Sophie’s husband Andrew – and what you were trying to do with the contrast between these two characters, and how this differs from the normal representation of Korean men or Asian men in other films?

A lot of people have asked me why I made Sophie a Caucasian woman. Although the character of Sophie is somewhat autobiographical in terms of what she’s obsessed with and why she struggles for it, I tried to be very careful not to get too attached to Sophie, because then it becomes just completely narcissistic.  I wanted to put some distance between myself and Sophie so that I could view Sophie objectively as a character. 

As for the two Korean men, before Never Forever, I only dealt with female characters, and I was never really interested in male characters, so that was a big challenge for me with this film.  So I wanted to make those male characters closer to me, people I can identify with, although I am a woman, so that I can portray them as realistic characters.  When you look around the United States, in Western culture in general, East Asian men are completely desexualized.  While black and Latino men are often sexualized, East Asian men are depicted as just these nerds, geeks, computer genius kind of guys.  I also realized that there was this spectrum of stereotypes about Asian men.  On the one hand, there is somebody like Jihah, who is a poor immigrant, who doesn’t speak English very well, who you often see on the streets of Chinatown.  And you wouldn’t necessarily consider them as men who you can have sex with or have any kind of communication with.  We see them as just random laborers, anonymous people on the street, with no lives.  Many of them don’t have visas, so they don’t even exist in a way, they’re just complete outsiders.  All they have is their bodies, and it’s really ironic that they are desexualized, because they are actually very sexual people, because they have healthy bodies, and they utilize them to make money.  So I wanted overturn this stereotype, and portray Jihah as an extremely sexual person.  But on the other end of the spectrum there’s Andrew, who is a very successful lawyer, and one of the very few exceptional East Asian men who can be sexualized in this culture. They can go out with white girls, because they’re successful, tall, well-built.  Andrew is one of those very rare, very lucky East Asian men who are considered attractive by the mainstream culture.  But again, I wanted subvert this image, and put irony onto his body. His sperm is weak, he’s infertile, and so by definition he’s not a sexual person.  I really wanted to reverse these two opposite stereotypes concerning East Asian men. 

There’s also, obviously, the theme of adultery, which is a very popular subject in Korean films, for example A Good Lawyer’s Wife, and Driving with My Wife’s Lover.  In a Korean context, why do you think this is such a popular subject? 

Because Korean people are extremely sexually repressed! (Laughs) But I think that’s changing, especially among the younger generation. Still, even for somebody like me, who studied and lived in the United States, and who is extremely liberal, when I see my friends getting divorced inKorea, I still find it surprising.  Then I think, wait a minute, why am I surprised?  I mean, people do that all the time, and they should if it makes them happier.  It’s really shameful that even somebody like me thinks that adultery is something really outrageous.  I don’t know, I think it has to do with the Confucian tradition.  I never really believed in that ideology, but still it’s there, I think, in the back of my mind. And especially for women, they all know that they are free to do whatever they want to do, but in real life, it’s extremely hard to do, they don’t have the courage.  Korean women are facing a lot of dilemmas these days.  For the younger generation, like me, we are different from our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generation.  We had the opportunity to get educated.  But as soon as you graduate from college, if you’re a woman, people will ask you, “So, when are you going to get married?  Who’s your boyfriend?”  And we pretend not to care, and we try not to care, but still it’s very hard not to care about those silly social norms.  And because of that, a lot of women are still repressed, despite being advanced in terms of their philosophy.  They’re very radical, very well educated, very liberal, but they’re still sexually repressed.  And that’s I think why these really outrageous adultery stories are so popular in Korea.

What has been the audience reaction to the film in Korea?

Well, it was widely released, and was very warmly received from critics.  But I was quite surprised, puzzled, and kind of amused by the fact that some Korean men were just really infuriated that this female character is completely different from typical female characters that they see in TV soap operas.  Sophie’s an upper class woman, married, with a perfect life, but she starts this affair with this poor immigrant guy.  But on a TV soap opera, she would get punished, either by the society, by the family, by the husband, or else abandoned by her lover. Or if she leaves her husband and chooses the lover, they end up living miserably.  But Sophie’s choice is not really about these men, it’s about herself.  So at the end of the film, I completely took the guys out of the picture, so we don’t know for sure who she’s with.  So some Korean guys were really furious about the ending – she was with two guys at the same time, and now she’s alone and happy?!

How do you think your films fit, if they do at all, in the tradition of feminist cinema?  I’m thinking specifically of filmmakers like Chantal Akerman, Yvonne Rainer, Su Fredrich, people like that.

I think it’d be arrogant to compare my films with theirs, because they are just really amazing filmmakers, and I’m not there yet, obviously! (Laughs)  But at the early stages of my filmmaking, when I was making my video diaries and experimental shorts, I was hugely inspired by them.  But these days, I’m really interested in issues of masculinity, too.  Because that’s what really disturbs me these days, especially inKorea, is this disturbed and sort of fucked up masculinity of Korean men, which causes so many problems.  Korean women are actually more advanced than Korean men, who still cling to these pre-modern concepts of sexuality and marriage, which is really unfortunate.  And because of that, they become really violent, not necessarily physically, but psychologically.  And because of that, they enjoy violent movies because of that, and misogynistic culture.  Male fraternity culture is expanding, and is growing more popular each year, which is just really astonishing.  Korea has a turbulent history, with colonization by Japan, and the Korean War, and Korea in a way is still a colony of the United States.  As Korean women, we were able to say that we were the victims, we were able to lament our sorrow.  But Korean men were in a really strange, peculiar situation, because they were the ones who sent the comfort women to Japan and China, they were the ones who made their sisters and daughters fuck U.S. soldiers.  And the men were in this really strange position, because in relation to Korean women, they are bigger, more powerful, the stronger predators.  But in relation to theUnited States army, or the Japanese empire, they are the feminine figures, they are lesser, they are weaker, they are the victims.  So they are kind of schizophrenic, and their masculinity is really tormented, and they just never really have the chance to reflect and come to terms with themselves, not even to this day, because we’ve never really talked about these kinds of things.  So right now, I’m more interested in Korean men’s psychology, and Korean men’s masculinity, and how it leads to fascism.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the Korean film industry, especially with films like yours, which are not necessarily considered blockbusters?

Since 1999, since Shiri, that blockbuster culture made the Korean industry really blossom, and was expanding every year.  But this year [2007] is kind of a crisis for the Korean film industry.  The money dried up because they made too many films last year [2006], and most of them didn’t break even.  And a lot of financiers, investors, and production companies went bankrupt.  But in a way, I think it’s a phase that we had to go through, because it was expanding too much.  And because of that, there were too many people involved who were not film lovers, who are not really interested in films to begin with, and who just wanted to make a profit out of the film industry.  So now the bubble the industry was in is diminishing.  And now only people who really love films, and who will make films no matter what happens, will stay in this film industry.  It’s sad that it’s not doing well, but ultimately, I’m still optimistic. 

Interview by Christopher Bourne



Seoul: The Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA) today announced the appointment of acclaimed Korean writer-director, Gina Kim, to its 2009 International Jury.

The announcement was made at a creative industries networking reception in Seoul following the recent Asia-Pacific Cities Summit.

“Gina Kim is one of Korea’s most impressive young filmmakers and I warmly welcome her to the APSA Jury,” said APSA Chairman, Des Power.

“212 films from 43 countries have been submitted this year, a record number of entries. I know that Gina will make a valuable contribution to the difficult task of choosing those that best demonstrate cinematic excellence and attest to their cultural origins.”

Among the guests at the reception were notable Korean film industry representatives including members of the Academy of the Asia Pacific Screen Awards and 2008 APSA Juror, Hanna Lee (Producer, Secret Sunshine).

Gina Kim attended the reception, arriving in Seoul direct from the prestigious Venice Film Festival where she sat on the Orizzonti Jury and presented the world premiere of her new feature length documentary Faces of Seoul.

Ms Kim said, “It is an honour to represent the Republic of Korea on the International Jury of the Asia Pacific Screen Awards and I look forward to collaborating with my fellow Jury members. An international award of this calibre is very meaningful to the way films are perceived and promoted around the world.”

Gina Kim’s appointment to the APSA Jury comes ahead of next week’s announcement of the 2009 Jury President.

APSA has had a strong association with the Republic of Korea since its inception with several films receiving APSAs including Ggeutnaji Anhmeun Jeon Jaeng / 63 Years On (Best Documentary Feature Film 2008), Joheunnom Nabbeunnom Isanghannom / The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Achievement in Cinematography 2008)  and Miryang (Secret Sunshine) which was awarded Best Feature Film in 2007 and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for Jeon Do-Yeon’s performance in the film.

Eminent Korean filmmaker and author, Professor Hong-Joon Kim is the chair of the APSA Nominations Council, a distinguished panel of international film industry experts who meet in Brisbane, Australia next week to decide nominees in nine categories. The winners are then determined by the International Jury ahead of the third annual Asia Pacific Screen Awards ceremony on November 26, 2009, on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Born in 1973 in Seoul, writer-director Gina Kim graduated from the Seoul National University and then moved to the United States where she completed her MFA at CalArts. In her early work, Kim studied the female identity and examined issues such as anorexia (Flying Appetite, 1998), the commercialisation of the female body (OK Man, This Is Your World, 1995), isolation (Dache-ro-wa-jineun a-chim / Morning Becomes Eclectic, 2001), and the mother-daughter relationship (Kim Gina eui bidio ilgi / Gina Kim’s Video Diary, 2002). Kim Ginaeui bidio ilgi (2002) and Gen jip ap (Invisible Light, 2003) have screened at festivals throughout the world, including Berlin, Locarno, Rotterdam, Turin and Vancouver. The highly acclaimed, Never Forever, produced by Lee Chang-dong and starring American actress Vera Farmiga, screened in competition at the Sundance Film Festival 2007 and was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Deauville American Film Festival. Kim was nominated for Best New Director of 2008 in Korea’s prestigious Daejong Film Festival Grand Bell Awards. Kim taught film production and film theory classes at Harvard University as a full-time lecturer for three years from 2004 to 2007.

Kim’s new documentary, Faces of Seoul recently had its world premiere at the 66th Venice Film Festival where she sat on the Orizzonti Jury. She is currently developing a new feature film in English, produced by Martin Scorsese.

A cultural initiative of the Queensland Government, APSA is a unique collaboration between Atlanta-based CNN International, Paris-based UNESCO and FIAPF-International Federation of Film Producers Associations. APSA honours the works of filmmakers across a region covering 70 countries, one third of the Earth and half the world’s film output.


'Never Forever': Director subverts stereotypes

If you ask Korean-born filmmaker Gina Kim, cultural norms in film are easy to spot: "In European countries, Asian men aren't supposed to be sexual. On one end, there are geeky, perfect lawyers and doctors - not supposed to be sexual," she says. "And the fate of the East Asian immigrant is usually tragic. I wanted to subvert that."

She does just that in her latest work, "Never Forever." In the film, the Caucasian wife (played by Vera Farmiga of "The Departed") of a successful Asian American lawyer (played by David L. McInnis) struggles to have children with her husband. His infertility, coupled with his father's death, sends him into a suicidal depression. Desperate to help him, albeit in a twisted way, Sophie convinces an undocumented Korean immigrant, Jihah, played by Jung-Woo Ha, to let her pay him for sex. This exchange becomes untenable as Sophie and Jihah begin falling in love.

Kim, who studied film at Cal Arts and until recently was a film studies professor at Harvard, says she drew inspiration from Korean films of the '60s.

"It really was a golden age for Korean film," she says. "I was struck by how radical they were, even or especially compared to today. And they were extremely well made. They dealt with the desire of women."

Kim says that while eventually the misunderstood wives in the films either fell in line with traditional gender relations or suffered tragic fates, she was enthralled by the way they placed the women's sexual and emotional needs at the core.

Female desire, in one form or another, has been Kim's subject throughout her career. "Gina Kim's Video Diary" (2002) was the documentary that first put her on the international film festival circuit. She began filming during her first year at grad school, in 1995, as a lonely recent immigrant to Los Angeles. The overriding subject was her reckoning with her physicality, her ability to recognize and ask for what she wants. Her next film, "Invisible Light" (2003), dealt with the mirrored lives of two women, one married to a man named Jun and one having an affair with Jun.

"Never Forever" marks a historic partnership between American and Korean producers, which thrills Kim. The film was a "passion project," a quirky screenplay that she banged out in about three days. "When I was done writing, I thought, 'What do I do with this?' It's not exactly American, it's not exactly Korean." The characters, though, are unmistakably human.

Reyhan Harmanci 

Sophie's Choices: Interview with Gina Kim, director of NEVER FOREVER

Gina Kim’s NEVER FOREVER, a hothouse of italicized emotion and pregnant pauses, received its world premiere at Sundance this year. StarVera Farmiga, best known for her role in THE DEPARTED, told the New York Times it was “one of the most visceral love stories I’d ever read;” intensely present in nearly every frame, she’s as compelling a wit’s-end heroine as you’ll see on screen this year. Ed Park interviewed Kim via e-mail.

Cinevue: NEVER FOREVER’s "plot keyword" on IMDB is "interracial relationship"—a label that's pretty reductive and yet right on the money. On the one hand, you have the story of a well-to-do woman (Sophie, played by Vera Farmiga) whose successful, infertile husband (Andrew, played by David McInnis) has become suicidal and withdrawn, complicating her desire to become a mother. This leads her to hire someone to inseminate her, a situation that could certainly work as drama, without the element of race. But the story is deepened by the fact that Sophie is white and both her husband and her lover (Jihah, played by Jung-woo Ha) are Korean. (When Jihah tells her that Andrew resembles him, there's a little VERTIGO frisson.) Was the issue of race integral to the film’s conception, or did you have the dramatic kernel of the story first?

The race element was definitely one of the jumping-off points for NEVER FOREVER. The story came along when I started to teach at Harvard University. I had never lived on the East Coast before and was struck by how Boston lacks 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). I became intrigued by how Asian people are perceived in the mainstream culture. I was always aware of how Asian women are overtly sexualized in American pop culture, but had very little knowledge about how Asian men are perceived. Most of them are completely de-sexualized, and are very rarely portrayed as subjects of desire. But of course there are exceptions, who often “happen” to be good-looking, successful professionals (lawyers, doctors etc.) who went to ivy league schools. When I investigated the distinction, I realized that it is a class issue more than anything else. Asian working-class men, who are poor first-generation immigrants, are often completely desexualized—unlike, say, Latino laborers. On the other end of the spectrum, the upper-class Asian men are the ones who are supposed to be desirable enough to get Caucasian women. I wanted to subvert this stereotype. Jihah is the poor immigrant, but I wanted to portray him as a sexually-charged man. Andrew is the perfect sexy Asian man but his sperm is weak and therefore, he is de-sexualized on the most basic level.

Cinevue: Were there films that influenced you in terms of tone or subject matter? Given NEVER FOREVER’s thorough melodrama and engagement with race, were you thinking of films like IMITATION OF LIFE or FAR FROM HEAVEN? Given the "secret patrimony" angle, were you giving a nod to all to the Korean soap operas that are so popular around Asia and the diaspora these days?

Douglas Sirk’s films influenced me greatly, as did some European films such as BELLE DE JOUR. But the most inspiring ones for me, in writing NEVER FOREVER, were Korean films from the 1960s. I was teaching Korean cinema at Harvard when I first conceptualized NEVER FOREVER. I was fortunate enough to get some 35mm prints of classic Korean cinema for the class screenings. I of course had seen all of them long ago, but when I watched them again to teach, I was impressed with how subversive they were, both aesthetically and thematically. Films such as MADAME FREEDOM (Han Hyong-mo, 1956), THE HOUSEMAID (Kim Ki-yong, 1960) and THE HOUSEGUEST AND MY MOTHER (Shin Sang-ok, 1961) moved me deeply with their vivid depiction of female characters. Each one is driven by her own desires and struggles for them. The endings of these films are often less than satisfying, but they inspired me nevertheless. I started to wonder what would happen if I put the same woman character in contemporary cinema without sacrificing her integrity at the very end. The result was a melodrama that strictly focuses on the psychology of a woman character, rather than the plot of a love affair itself.

Cinevue: This is a great role for Farmiga—she's in practically every scene, most of them intense if not downright traumatic, and we live for those few glimpses of her smiling. How did she come to be in your movie? What was it like working with her and with your other actors? (How did you find Jung-Woo Ha, who plays Jihah?) Often, she's plunged into scenes where every other actor is Asian/Korean—during the scenes with church members, was she aware of what was being said in the script?

NEVER FOREVER is not a dialogue-heavy film, so I was desperately looking for the right actor for the role of Sophie, someone who not only could ‘play’ the role but also ‘become’ the role. I first saw Vera in DOWN TO THE BONE and was blown away by her performance. She has the ability to disappear into the character she plays. So, I sent her my script and we met at a small café in Soho. I was convinced that Vera was the Sophie that I’d been looking for the minute she walked into the café. 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 a relatively easy time creating the Sophie character without having to explain much with dialogue. The chemistry between Jungwoo and Vera as two actors and fellow artists were beyond belief. They actually didn’t want to meet each other before the shoot so that they could retain the mystery until the first day of shoot. I wanted to shoot the sex scenes in a sequential order, so that we could exploit the awkwardness and tension in real life. Of course, it was extremely risky but it ended up beautifully working out. I could tell the intimacy growing between the two actors from one scene to another!

Cinevue Though Jihah is from Korea, he lives in Chinatown (rather than somewhere else in the metro area with a greater concentration of Koreans). Was this simply a practical matter, or a comment on Sophie's perception of "Asianness"?

It was to portay Jihah as a total 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 the Korean (or Korean-American) community as well, and chooses to live in Chinatown. Things can be easier for him if he chooses to compromise. But he stubbornly goes his own way in terms of pursuing 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.

Despite the full-bore melodrama, the film subtly shifts our sympathies, and even the plot is left with an erasure of sorts. The title is evocative and yet elusive; the delicate ending is fascinating in its ambiguity. In your mind, is there a clear narrative connecting what's happened in the movie to this final scene? (Semi-spoiler alert—maybe read this after you see the movie.)

I think it is quite clear that the baby in Sophie’s belly is Jihah’s, but I didn’t want to show Jihah, because it would diffuse the real question. For me, the real question was “Is she happy? Did she achieve what she wanted?,” not “Who is she with?”— which differentiates this film from the typical melodrama. (End spoiler alert)

In NEVER FOREVER, who Sophie ends up with really is not the point. In this context, NEVER FOREVER can be considered a coming of age story —a bildungsroman—more than a melodrama. For the ending, I wanted to make it clear that she fulfilled what she longed for, and therefore achieves happiness at the end. The best way to imply that is to make her pregnant again, since pregnancy has a different meaning for Sophie than it does for other typical female melodrama characters. For Sophie, the fetus is an agency that makes her realize what she really wants out of her life. It is her desire, dream, and ultimately, her life.

So, in the climactic confrontation scene with Andrew, when Sophie says, “This baby is mine,” she is not talking about motherhood but rather is explicitly expressing the desire to live her own life. The irony is that it all started as a sacrifice for her husband, but ended up becoming her self-fulfillment. In a way, Sophie became a whore by becoming a mother and ultimately, blurs (and hopefully negates) the boundary between the two stereotypes of women: the mother and the whore.

Interview by Ed Park


Gina Kim Shows Us the Light

Gina Kim’s debut narrative feature, “Invisible Light,” focuses on two women in trouble. Gah-in is having an affair with Do-hee’s husband, but Do-hee is pregnant with another man’s child. Sounds like the makings of a soap opera, don’t it? Well, “Invisible Light” is nothing that disposable. Kim’s previous work creating her own video diary has given her the know how to plumb the deepest, darkest depths of her characters. There should be plenty for an audience to chew on here.

When did you begin filmmaking? 
I began filmmaking as a video artist. I had started out making videos when I was in college in Seoul. They were art pieces people usually make in art schools. However, when I had gotten to the U.S. for grad school, my camcorder took on a bit of a personality. It was my art medium, my diary pen, and my friend. I started making video diaries for the next 6 years (1995-2001). Extremely personal, they were later edited and became “Gina Kim’s Video Diary.” The images of the video diary later inspired “Invisible Light.”

What were some major problems you ran into while making “Invisible Light”? 
Mostly technical and financial. There were several production companies in Korea that were interested in making the film, though they knew “Invisible Light” was a small art film. However, even the small interest had dissipated when three low-budget digital films had collapsed in the market in 2001. They were “Flower Island,” “Nabi” and “Camel(s)”. Though great films, there really wasn’t enough of an audience to sustain consistent production of digital films.

But the Korean Film Commission (KOFIC) had funded us twice, and that allowed us to complete the project and the transfer from digital to 35. But the money was extremely tight. Certainly not enough to simply give a tape to EFilm and ask them to do the transfer. Fortunately, we were able to find a work flow that took a long time even at a render farm, but was cost-efficient, keeping everything pretty much in-house before feeding the images into the CRT recorder. The CRT is less sharp than the laser, but if you can make sure that you resize, color grade, and then de-interlace correctly, you can maximize the quality. Remember, most of our film was shot on PD-150, but even for a tutored eye, it’s extremely difficult to distinguish it from programs shot on 35mm camera.

What would you like “Invisible Light” to do for its audience? 
Though the characters are Korean females, I tried to reach for a theme of “isolation” that is perhaps as universal as anything else. If the audience can find things in them–their everyday, their small struggles, and personal decisions they have to face–that they can identify, I would be glad.

What’s up next for you? 
I am working on two projects: one is a genre film called “The Gate of Fear.” It’s a horror film that will be made in Korea about a young professional urban woman who is communicating with the shaman in resolving her trauma. We will begin shooting this one as soon as the school is out of session at Harvard. (I will be teaching filmmaking classes at Harvard in 04-05.) The other is a film project that is closer to my heart and will take more of an Andre Techine-approach in examining the psychological layers of intense romance. It’s a romantic/moral tale of an American soldier stationed in Korea and his affair with a Korean woman. The title of this film project is “Bliss.” We hope to get ready and begin shooting this one in 2006.

Interview with Eric Campos