By Hugh Hart
Published Dec 14, 2018 8:00 AM
Professor Gina Kim is using virtual reality to subvert Hollywood stereotypes of Asians, women and others.
UCLA professor Gina Kim grew up in South Korea and moved to the United States in 1995 to attend film school. One year after her debut film, Gina Kim’s Video Diary, earned critical acclaim at the 2003 Berlin International Film Festival, Kim became the first Asian woman to teach in Harvard University’s Visual and Environmental Studies Department. Now, as a filmmaker with 12 total credits, Kim is out to dismantle the binary divisions that impose “perpetual otherness” on the marginalized, as she did in the recent VR project Bloodless. The 12-minute piece, named by Filmmaker Magazine as “The Best VR Storytelling of 2017,” immerses viewers in a crime scene involving the murder of a South Korean sex worker.
How did moving to the United States shape you as a filmmaker?
What I do as an artist changed completely after I came to the United States, because I became a transnational being. Whether it is affect or sensibility or money or person or story, some things cannot be contained within the rigid boundary of one nation that travels with you. I am Korean to the bone, but I live in the United States. Teaching at Harvard and now at UCLA, I’ve become assimilated, but every time I return to Korea, my family and friends think I’ve just been on this prolonged trip. I have to tell them, “Dude, I live in the States now.” I’m like a frog: I can live in water, live on earth. So that’s who I am now, and it has defined basically all of my work. You can’t apply a cookie-cutter identity to people anymore, and you can’t fit my work into one neat category like “Asian cinema” or “feminist film.” It is all of that and beyond.
You spent six years on your first production, Gina Kim's Video Diary. What was your goal as you created this intensely personal self-portrait?
I did painting and performance art in college, but when I discovered home video, I instinctively felt I could use it to document myself and my daily life. I wanted to explore what it means for a female to have the camera’s autonomy and be featured in the story at the same time, instead of just being this object of the male gaze. So the video diary became my way of protesting the depiction of women in cinematic contexts. The idea of using video as a tool to capture yourself has become very common these days, but back then it was considered kind of revolutionary.
In what way was the 1992 murder of South Korean sex worker Yoon Keum Yi by a U.S. soldier a defining moment for you?
As a freshman in college, I took part in mass protests demanding that this man be tried in the South Korean court system. The perpetrator was sentenced to prison, so that was a proud moment, but I was enraged by the way the victim was publicized in the media. Somebody got a photo of the crime scene, and the extremely graphic image was endlessly reproduced in fliers and on posters. It was bad enough that this woman was killed, and now we were destroying her dignity one more time. Ever since then, I’ve explored, “What is ethical representation?” That question became the center of my identity as an artist.
What sparked your fascination with virtual reality as a filmmaking medium?
I loved that VR is so democratic. The politics of the cinematic medium is really important to me and something I teach in my classes. With 2-D cinema, you frame what you’re shooting inside this small rectangular box, and the rest of the world is abandoned. As the director, you’re like a dictator. In VR, the director loses his or her autonomy over the image.
For Bloodless, how did you use the VR format to immerse the viewer in a historic red-light district “camp town” sex crime?
I had developed a treatment [for 2-D cinema], but couldn’t reconcile with the fact that the story might be seen in the same vein as all these conventional narrative films that represent the female body, voyeuristically, as the victim. I didn’t want to do that, so I put this story aside for a long time. But when I came across this new medium of VR, I realized I could transport the audience to this “camp town” neighborhood that still exists, where women sold their bodies and could be raped and murdered without the protection of laws. With VR, you could experience what happened from the victim’s perspective.
In 2013, you wrote, directed and produced the cooking-competition comedy Final Recipe. What prompted you to create the first English-language film made by an Asian director with an all-Asian cast?
When I started developing Final Recipe in 2011, I was really unhappy that Asian culture in general was misconstrued in the entertainment industry as either kung fu characters or these really sexualized “hot girls,” and that was basically it. I asked myself, “Is there anything else we could focus on that would penetrate mainstream society?” And I realized there is one thing: food. Everybody loves Asian food, so I thought maybe we could use that subject to lure a universal audience. Given the Pan-Asian scope of the story, it made sense to use English as the lingua franca of the region, as well as for global cinema.
As a feminist filmmaker, are you demoralized or inspired by the stories emerging from the #MeToo movement?
Both. The #MeToo movement hit me so hard that at some point I had to stay away from social media completely, because it was so disturbing, I couldn’t work. Especially in Korea, too many people I personally know were involved [as victims and as perpetrators]. But every crisis can create an open door and lift us up. At least we talk openly now, because it’s not like violence against the female body just started happening recently. It’s been going on forever. So as a filmmaker, I’m interested in putting these issues into a bigger, transnational context where it’s more about people who are marginalized and not given a voice in general.
What are you working on next?
I’m developing a TV series set in borderline Koreatown and MacArthur Park, which will depict all kinds of interesting people that you don’t usually see in mainstream films.
I’m also working on two immersive media VR projects for a trilogy about the camp town women of South Korea. I believe their story signifies a big problem in our world, no matter where you live: We don’t understand the pain of others. We don’t tolerate “the others” who we think are different from us. It’s important to challenge this binary thinking. And I think by making films about these people, I can blur the boundaries between the U.S., Korea, civilians, and military.
That’s what I’ve been trying to achieve in all of my films and artwork. I want to blow up these social boundaries and disassemble these false dichotomies so that we can create true equality and diversity. We don’t have to put ourselves into these little boxes.