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 Killing. The 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.