Wait a second, "Asian women, in general, are overly sexualized in mainstream culture"...
Yes, in America. You don't think so? It's a myth, but Asian women appear to be frail and child-like and young and sleek and what not. I mean, all the Asian stars in Hollywood are extremely sexy, except for Sandra Oh. That's why I love Sandra Oh so much. She's not a sexual object, she's just a person, which is very exceptional.
So what about Asian male sexuality?
Well, Asian male sexuality is practically non-existent in mainstream culture, and you don't really get to see a lot of romantic relationships in mainstream cinema between Caucasian women and especially East Asian men. It's really striking when you think of all the sexy Latino male stars. But compared to them, Asian male sexuality doesn't even exist. Either they are these computer genius geeks or poor immigrant workers in the streets.
These are portrayals in American cinema.
But in Asian Cinema or Korean Cinema, they are very sexualized.
So, you're comparing the perspective on Asian women and men in American cinema. Okay, is that why you selected an American woman as the female lead, rather than an Asian?
Yeah, I wanted to challenge that connotation and that type. So I wanted to cast a very white pale-skinned American woman with an East Asian man. And furthermore, I wanted to challenge the stereotypes of Asian men. One is the computer genius and lawyer, who is the perfect model immigrant, who made his way to the mainstream. But who is not necessarily sexual.
On the other hand, there are these poor immigrant guys who don't really speak English and are not part of the society. They are like outcasts; we don't really see them as sexual beings or even as human. They're just kind of there, in the background. Background workers, really. I wanted to put their lost sexuality back in their body because, it's really ironic when you think about it. All they have - the only reason why they are working - is a healthy body. So why are they not sexual? They are the most sexual people in the world. They don't speak, they are almost like animals, so why shouldn't they be sexual?
So I wanted to flip, to subvert those stereotypes and create the triangular dynamics between one Caucasian woman and one very successful Korean American man and one poor Korean man.
Well, could you have chosen any more gorgeous men than the two in your film?
Oh, you think so? I'm so happy to hear you say that!
I wonder, was there any autobiography in this story? And which of the characters do you most identify with?
No, I mean, in terms of the characters, maybe in terms of how they feel: the traumas they go through, Sophie's dilemma. Not the inability to have a child part, not that part. But the issues that she deals with - she doesn't know what to do with her life - probably came from my subconscious. I also sometimes feel the burden of making myself presentable to the Korean American community just because, you know, I'm a filmmaker, I taught at Harvard. And when I talk to the Korean American press, I feel that people want certain things from me, they want to hear certain things from me and that's a huge burden.
They're projecting onto you.
Yeah. That's tough, but I can't imagine having been brought up with that burden all my life. That's what Sophie's husband Andrew has had to deal with his entire life. So he's part of me. And Jihah, of course, is part of me, too, because I came here as a poor immigrant when I was 23. I didn't speak English at all. I wasn't a manual laborer, but I had to do some odd jobs to support myself. So I can certainly relate to the humiliation as a non-native speaker. So they are all part of me. But in terms of what happened in the film, plot-wise, no, it's not autobiographical.
What part of Sophie are you? Do you have children?
No, no children yet.
Well, Sophie is not the kind of woman who says what she really feels. She has a lot of repression. And even though I'm an extrovert, there is a part of me who still tends to be reserved. I always think about other people's needs: What do they want to hear from me? What do they want me to do? - as opposed to what I want to do. Sometimes I'm a little stunned when someone asks me, "What do you want to do?" I'm like, Oh, my god, I don't know! Because I always think about other people's needs, above and beyond everything, although I'm straightforward, and I'm good at getting what I want. But still, it's very hard. Deep down it's very hard to figure out what I really want out of my life. And people don't really understand that about me.
But I think that's a dilemma that every woman feels, more or less. You know, dealing with the family obligations, your lover, your children, you're always compelled to think about them. You don't really think about yourself, even though you think your thinking about yourself. So that's Sophie.
And she's placed in such restrictive circumstances, not only the familial structure, but the religious demands of Christianity that are imposed on her as well.
I don't have anything against Christianity and I don't have an opinion on any kind of religion, but Christianity in the Korean American society is very rigid and very powerful and very alienating for non-religious Korean American people. For Sophie, the religious scenes were actually cinematic devices more than anything else because I really had to show the audience that she is absolutely isolated and alienated from the family. For me, the most effective and economic device to show that was to put her in a church where she doesn't even understand a single word. And in the bible study they are all praying for Sophie, but she doesn't understand what's going on. I mean, how tragic is that? How ridiculous is that? As soon as the audience sees her in that situation, they immediately get her situation.
And then she has the extra burden of not being able to get pregnant and then not knowing whether it's her or her husband and what she should do.
That's another Confucianism-slash-Christianity combo thing. When a couple cannot produce a child, in Korean culture, people often think it's the woman. There is this masterpiece in Korea called The Surrogate Mother...
Yes, the wonderful Im Kwon-Taek film!
Oh, you know that film and the director?! He and that film inspired me greatly. Because it's a similar premise: they start their relationship just to have a child, but then, of course, it doesn't happen like that. And so they end up falling in love and it destroys everything for everybody.
But in Never Forever Sophie becomes authentic and everything is destroyed because it had all been false.
Yes, exactly. But because The Surrogate Mother is set in pre-modern society, she is the one who has to be destroyed by the social norm. But in this case, Never Forever is set in contemporary, modern society and, although she doesn't mean to, Sophie destroys everything because it's all farcical to begin with. But she becomes authentic and she fulfills her own desire and gets her life back, so that's a happy ending, I think.
And the way you end the film - in nature, at the ocean, the ultimate feminine symbol - says it all. So much of what "woman" is identified with. And we've never seen her in nature before. In fact, she's always been cloistered somewhere: at church or at home or in Jihah's room or on the streets of New York City. So the sense of sheer joy and liberation was fantastic. How did you happen to think of Vera and then cast her?
I saw Down to the Bone, which was a mere coincidence. But when I saw her I said, Oh, my god, that's my Sophie, right there. So I asked my casting director to set up a meeting with her and the minute she walked into the public café where we met, I knew this was my Sophie. She has these amazing eyes, these piercing, hypnotic eyes. They force you to think about what the character is going through, because they agitate you - you are forced to think.
Vera has a way... she basically transforms herself into the character. She doesn't act, really. I never felt that she was acting in my film. She just becomes Sophie. I don't know how she does that. I met her when she was filming Joshua and re-shooting scenes for The Departed. But when I'd see her on the set, there was no Vera. And of course we became good friends and then I discovered that, oh, there really is a Vera [laughs].
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