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.