Unlike many filmmakers on this continent, you opted against attending film school. With no formal education in film, how has this helped your work?
It's been helpful because instead of learning how to make films, I've learned to live life [in addition to his extensive work as a painter, Kim spent five years in the Korean military and many years working in various factories, which, as he has noted elsewhere, caused him "no shame, because I thought factory jobs were my future. As I reflect on this past, I realize that if one accepts a hard life as the only way to live then this reality becomes that life..."].
How did you come to direct your first feature, Crocodile?
It was mostly by coincidence. I wrote the scenario and it ended up being really liked by someone. He picked it up and soon after it was funded. It was my first film and it was very difficult to shoot, I'll have to admit. There were a lot of difficult underwater scenes that I struggled with [the film concerns a collector of waterlogged bodies, all suicides, pulled from a river in Seoul]. All in all, it was a pretty difficult film to make.
How does your interest in painting, particularly the work of abstract figurative painters such as Egon Schiele or the Art Nouveau painter Gustav Klimt, influence your work?
I was a painter myself. In Europe, I studied and had the opportunity to view many paintings. In particular, I was greatly impressed by the more abstract painters, like [Salvador] Dali. Rather than relying on realism I wanted to explore the difference between realism and the fantastical and wanted to really bring that discussion into cinema. In some ways, that in-between space, I think, lends itself to adding more mental and ideal elements to a film.
By extension, American filmmaking tends to be quite self-referential. The experience of our directors is largely (and unfortunately) limited to their familiarity with other films. In "living a life" to provide a foundation for your work, the normal result would be realism. In your case, it lends itself to surrealism.
Paintings, even the more figurative paintings, rely on strategies of representation that are abstract and in many ways arbitrary. You never paint with the ruler for instance. My filmmaking is not just the regular narrative that I rely on, but various elements. In particular, visual images that really help broaden the horizons for interpretive possibilities.
The Isle includes a series of fairly disturbing sequences involving the masochistic use of fish hooks. What inspired this odd touch in an otherwise atmospheric film?
I believe that we all go through stages of hurting others, being hurt by others, and also hurting one's self. In some ways, it's a progressive structure, but it's the structure of human life. Everything that I explore in my films is an investigation of this problem of the self through the idea of being hurt. Of course, masochism falls into this theme. The Isle, I think, is a sort of philosophical film where I really try to think about these issues.
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