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to the 2011 Korean Cinema Blogathon, curated by the great sites New Korean Cinema and cine AWESOME!, is this previously unpublished interview with Seoul-born and US-based filmmaker and video artist Gina Kim, whose films are very much centered on the female body and female desire.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  is kind of a crisis for the Korean film industry. The money dried up because they made too many films last year , 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