[Note: Around the middle of this conversation, you might get the feeling that you're bumping into spoilers. Don't worry, you're not. But there is a discussion of the ending of Never Forever at, appropriately enough, the very end. That final Q and its final A appear on the very last, the fourth page - don't read that one until you've seen the film.]
By Cathleen Rountree
Tackling classism, inter-racial relationships, infertility and infidelity, Gina Kim's film (with the Neruda-inspired title) Never Forever quietly observes the collapse of a languid, unfulfilled marriage and the concurrent blossoming of a woman's empowerment through her sexuality. The South Korean-born Kim immigrated to California when she was 23 to study filmmaking at Cal Arts. Her first documentary, Gina Kim's Video Diary (2002), chronicles that period in her life and her duel battles with bulimia and depression. Her first narrative feature, Invisible Light (2003), carries the kernel of Never Forever's story about a Caucasian housewife, Sophie (an exquisitely nuanced performance by Vera Farmiga), married to Andrew (David L. McInnis), a successful Korean American attorney.
Sophie's isolation within her husband's clan intensifies when they ascertain Andrew's impotence. Hoping to salvage her marriage, Sophie enlists sensitive poet Jihah (Jung-Woo Ha), a virile Korean illegal immigrant to impregnate her. But as her passions awaken during the illicit tryst, the liberated Sophie must choose between lovers and lifestyles and maintaining the status quo or embracing her new authenticity.
Sounds like a women's weepy melodrama? Kim (who also wrote the screenplay) acknowledges her debt to the operatic dramas of Korean Cinema's Golden Age of the 1960s. But, far from the exaggerated sentiments and simplistic morality inherent in the genre, Never Forever projects the director's female gaze with emotional unerring and compassionate insight.
Kim's underlying cinematic feminist vision has found popularity among international film festivals, including Sundance, Berlin, Pusan and Locarno, and museums such as MoMA and the Pompidou and Lincoln Centers. And her films have received critical acclaim in prestigious publications such as Le Monde, Film Comment and Cahiers du Cinema. I sat down with the vivacious and sophisticated Gina Kim during the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in March. Never Forever opens theatrically on April 11 in NYC and San Francisco, with additional openings in May.
What is your documentary about?
Oh, it's just a really small documentary, sort of like a Ross McElwee or Chris Marker-style. It was commissioned by a foundation in Korea and it's about the city of Seoul.
When did you come to the States?
I came for film school, which was Cal Arts, in 1996. And after that, I went back to Korea to teach, where I did my first two feature-length films, a documentary and a fictional feature film. And then I was kind of back-and-forth between the States and Korea until Harvard invited me to teach in 2004.
That's very prestigious. How did that come about?
Well, I lucked out, really. I traveled a lot with my films. One year, the Torino Film Festival showed two of my films, and I was also on their jury for short films. One of the other jurors for documentaries was Ross McElwee, who directed Sherman's March. He saw my two films and really liked them and asked me if I'd like to teach at Harvard. At the time, I wasn't really thinking about being a teacher or professor, but it sounded like a great place to teach and a fun thing to do actually, because I'd never lived on the East Coast before. So I accepted.
What courses did you teach?
Film Studies and Film Production. One was a very intensive one-year filmmaking course for undergraduates. Also, a video course on personal documentary and a Film Studies course on Korean Cinema.
And you're no longer at Harvard?
Yes, I left last year to focus on my own filmmaking. It was such a struggle. Being a filmmaker and a full-time faculty member are just not compatible. You travel a lot, and I was commuting every week and... it nearly killed me [laughs].
Never Forever becomes increasingly powerful as the story progresses. It opens on how many screens on April 11?
I think 12 screens, which is great for the type of film it is. In Korea, it's considered a studio film, so we were literally fighting with - in competition with - Spider-Man 3! The first week we had a little momentum, but then the second week, it really dropped off, because Transformers, Harry Potter and Spider-Man all opened up the same week and we dropped to number five at the box office.
Well, that says it all about the affect of American films on the world cinema scene, doesn't it?
Yeah, well here in the States, the film is considered an independent, so it's strange to see the difference. In France, it was considered somewhere in-between. It's been interesting to see how the film has been received in different countries.
How was it received in France?
I'm not a Francophile or anything, but they loved it and the film was so warmly received. We got reviews in all the major press like Le Figaro and Le Monde, all the dailies. They focused more on the class conflict, which was really interesting to see, because there was no discussion of class conflict in Korea, actually. They saw it as more of a melodrama.
In France they have this tradition of bourgeois women who go for this "scum class," lower class men and they end up falling in love and it's a catastrophe. So they have a long literary history of that, like Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterley's Lover - although that's British, but still, the French made a film out of it. So they're very familiar with that and they interpreted my film in that context as well, on top of everything else: melodrama, love story, race conflict, everything.
How did Korea interpret the film?
Well, it was interpreted as more of a straightforward melodrama genre film, which is fair because I was influenced by the traditional melodramas in Korean Cinema from the 60s.
I don't know much about the history of Korean Cinema. I know...
Probably from 1997 or so, from Shiri on.
Yes, the last ten to 15 years, I guess. But I'm interested in learning more.
Actually the 60s is the real Golden Age of Korean Cinema, much like the Golden Age of studio films in Hollywood during the 50s. In the 60s in Korea, the studio system was really blossoming; they were making so many films and every director was so prolific. Like the most popular directors were making 11 films per year.
One a month?! How is that possible?
Well, they were studio films, so they weren't exactly auteur films. But still, they are so well made.
What types of films were they?
Just like the Hollywood Studio films: romantic comedies, melodramas... Cinema was really the entertainment of that era, because they didn't have much television. Everyone went to the cinema and especially the women's audience was so big. I mean tearjerkers, weepies, whatnot, but still, the quality of them was really astonishing. And because of the large female audience, the women characters in those films were really phenomenal. In fact, the female characters we have in Korean cinema today absolutely pale by comparison.
Is that right?
Yeah, it's really sad. This is one of the things I taught in my Harvard Film Studies class.
It sounds to me that what you're saying is that in the 60s, they were studio-like films, but now - it seems to me at least - that there's a lot more variety and that there is a large auteur movement. Would you say the films are more "serious" now?
What happened is that the studio system collapsed in the 1970s, due to the military dictatorship. And in the 80s Korea started to make really pathetic films, so no one went to the cinema any more. They were semi-porn and propaganda films for the government. And they commissioned "literary" films, inspired by or adapted from short stories. Some of them are interesting, but most of them are not. So that was the 80s, when the Korean film industry just kind of hit rock bottom.
Then in the 90s, the three big directors - Kim Ki-Duk, Im Kwon-Taek and Hong Sang-Soo - started making important films again, and all made their debut films in 1997. From then on it started to change. Then from 1998-99, I don't remember, the first blockbuster film Shiri came out. And that just opened a whole new world for Korean Cinema.
So now, compared to the 60s, yes, it's more auteur-driven, but still, when you are a domestic audience in Korea, you get to see a lot of genre films, actually. Here in the United States, Korean films are more like French films, so only the good ones get exported. So it looks like they're all auteur films, but in Korea we have mostly the straight genre films, like comedy and gangsters, those kinds of things.
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