Susanne QuesterThe video source for Gina Kim's Video Diary was shot over a long time and you edited several short films prior to the long diary version. Can you tell more about the process?
Gina KimI discovered the video medium as a senior in college and was struck by its potential for the ‘democratization’ of art – the possibility of mass production that makes art accessible for the mass public. I started keeping a video diary nearly every day, which generated to hundreds of hours of footage from 1995 to 2000. At first I kept the video diary in order to comfort myself, not intending to show it to anyone. But soon I realized what I was doing was something meaningful. In the (paper) journal I kept in 1996, I wrote "I don’t know what exactly it means to pursue this, but I am doing it because I know it will mean something to someone someday. I know in my gut that my struggle is not limited to myself. It is about a young woman who didn’t have voice in this post-colonial male-centric world. Maybe someday, someone will be able to tell me what these images all mean."
Susanne Quester I am particularly interested in the editing process – was there anybody supporting you?
Gina KimAs I mentioned above, I decided to edit the massive amount of footage so that I could put it out in the world. But the editing process was long and excruciating. After watching the footage repeatedly, I first had to figure out a big story- a 'narrative' if you will – from the amassed footage. Then I went through each tape to decide what to keep and what to leave out. It took me nearly two years to edit it since I sometimes had to stop to distance myself from it. When I felt lost and frustrated, I would show bits and parts of the footage to my mentors and friends to get feedback. But all in all, it was a solitary process. I came to terms with the issues I struggled with and successfully became an adult woman through the editing process, as much as through shooting the footage.
Susanne QuesterAre you still keeping a video diary or when and why did you stop?
Gina KimI stopped keeping a video diary in 2000. Throughout the editing process, I became gradually disinterested in keeping a video journal. I was much more interested in interpreting the images I already compiled as if I was my own subject of psycho-analysis. More importantly, I had another creative outlet that occupied me by then. As I edited the footage, certain cryptic images kept popping into my head. Intrigued, I started jotting the images down in a big notebook. The images mostly featured two solitary women in spaces – one in Korea and the other in California. The images were seemingly random but somehow mysteriously coherent. It was as though I had a million pieces of a puzzle in my mind and I was playing with them, not knowing what to do with them. By the time I finished editing GKVD, my notebook was completely filled with my notes. When I connected the missing dots and figured out how to put them into a big picture, I realized two women had been born in my notebook. Those two women became the main characters of INVISIBLE LIGHT.
Susanne Quester INVISIBLE LIGHT is divided into two parts, showing the two female characters completely isolated from each other. What was the idea behind this concept? What do the two women have in common?
Gina KimOn thematic level, they both cannot make peace with their own bodies and desires. The two women intentionally misplace themselves in the world geographically, in order to give themselves an opportunity to figure out what they really want, and each suffers from intense isolation as a consequence. In terms of the story and character, they have one man in common – Gah-in’s lover who is also Dohee’s husband. I wanted to make sure that the man is absent in the film. He connects the two women but the film is not about him. The story is about the two women.
When I was conceiving the film and writing the script, I kept thinking about a mathematical function Y=1/X (see below) The graph you get from that function is not one, but two beautiful curves – one in ++ arena and the other in - - arena. I put the man in the center of the graph ( which is 0 ) and built and shaped the story of these two women based on this mathematical function.
As the graph suggests, the two women in INVISIBLE LIGHT are mirror images of each other. Gah-in (in Chinese characters, it means house + person) is someone who never leaves her home in LA. She is an international student from Korea and has an affair with a married man. She is disgusted by her own behavior and punishes herself by locking up and starving herself. Dohee (in Chinese characters, it means street + person) lives in the US but leaves for Korea when she finds out her husband is having an affair with Gah-in. She expresses her anger by sleeping around, which leads her to unwanted pregnancy. Not being able to confront the dillemma, she wanders the streets of Seoul aimlessly.
Susanne Quester Your next feature film, NEVER FOREVER was entirely shot in the US, starring the awesome actress Vera Farmiga. Why did you decide for a Caucasian main character?
Gina KimIt is hard to elaborate exactly 'why' I 'decided' to build the story around a white woman. Stories come to me through an organic process and I simply follow my intuition. My subconscious is like an enigmatic black box that absorbs all of my surroundings and people around me. At the right moment, the black box pours out strange characters and stories that I myself don’t understand fully. I make films, write and paint in order to understand them.
When I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to teach at Harvard University in 2004, I was surprised by the homogeneity in the demographics not only in the intellectual community but also in the city itself. My predominantly white colleagues and students were truly wonderful and I didn’t suffer from any racial discrimination. Nonetheless, I felt a strange sense of isolation every time I found out that I was the only Asian or even person of color in the room everywhere I went – libraries, movies theaters and conference rooms.
At the same time, I was teaching a course on Korean cinema (offered for the first time in an Ivy League university) and had awesome opportunity to revisit all the classic Korean melodramas from the 50s and 60s. I was shocked by the subversive nature of the female characters ( in those films ) who, sadly, are compromised and punished at the end of each film for having their own desires. Then, little by little, the small vignettes and characters that ended up in NEVER FOREVER emerged from all of these experiences. I believe the three of the main characters in the film (Jihah, Andrew and Sophie) symbolize the three different kinds of people that reside in the US in terms of racial, ethnic and national diversity. But it is also possible I wanted to divide and project myself evenly into three characters. Jihah - an immigrant worker from Korea, Andrew – a successful Asian American who made it into the mainstream society in the US, and Sophie – a highly repressed white woman who is unable to figure out what she wants. Maybe I wanted to balance among these three characters and put a bit of distance between Sophie and myself by making her white.
Susanne Quester You chose 'Desire & Diaspora' as title for this retrospective – what is the meaning of these terms for you and your cinematic work?
Gina KimDesire and Diaspora are two key words that can describe my works as well as my life.
The current world tends to operate on false dichotomies: man/woman, west/east, foreigner/native, human/nature, people of color/white etc. Although the world has become much more complicated, our semiotic consciousness hasn’t evolved beyond the dichotomy. And the false dichotomy inevitably creates a boundary and the boundary divides the world as people within the boundary (we) and outside of the boundary (others/they). Once set, it is hard to cross these boundaries. What’s interesting is desire creates a potent agency that challenges such taboos and boundaries. The boundary never entirely disappears because that’s not how the current world operates, but with desire, you become a nomadic being that doesn’t belong either side of the boundary. Then diaspora is created. As a Korean living in the US, I’ve accepted and embraced the status of my nomadic state of my being at this point – but it leaves me with an existential melancholia and intense nostalgia. For the things that you left behind. For the things that now you lost. That’s diapora. All of my works are in a way an attempt to process these affects and thoughts.