Cinema Asian America: Gina Kim’s ‘Never Forever’

Film fans, there’s reason for excitement. Cinema Asian America, presented within your XFINITY On Demand, features the VOD premiere of Gina Kim’s acclaimed film “Never Forever“, a hit at the Sundance Film Festival. Featuring breakout performances by Vera Farmiga (“Up In The Air,” “The Departed”) and Korean actor Ha Jung-woo (“My Dear Enemy”), Kim’s second feature film is an erotic and intense play of race, lies and sexuality.

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Sophie (Farmiga) is a housewife married to a successful Korean-American lawyer. When their marriage begins to fall apart because they are unable to conceive a child, Sophie begins a series of clandestine sexual encounters with a Korean immigrant (Ha). What begins as a business arrangement between them soon turns into something much more complex and threatens to unravel both of their lives.

Reviews of “Never Forever” have commented on its melodramatic storytelling as well what Variety termed its “hushed eroticism.” At its core is a story about intimacy and difference and the relationship between two individuals who are opposites in almost all ways: a well-to-do Caucasian woman and a scruffy Korean immigrant. Can you tell us a bit about how you developed the story? I think there are two consistent themes in all of my filmmaking. One is ‘what do women want?’ (yes, just like how Freud put it, but without the sentiment of frustration or contempt). The other is ‘what does it mean to be Asian?’ but this one is much less pronounced.

I always wanted to make a story about a woman whose body becomes a battleground of conflicting signs and symbols, such as the old binary division of ‘the mother and the whore.’ It is quite archaic but still intact, especially in the conventions of commercial narrative cinema. I managed to come up with a character who is faced by her own unexpected desire which leads her astray, and also ultimately frees her. But I couldn’t come up with a thread that would provide the backbone of the story.

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I found the answer when I started to teach at Harvard (Visual and Environmental Studies). I mostly taught filmmaking courses but also taught one on Korean Cinema. To prepare my lectures, I had the wonderful opportunity to revisit classics of Korean cinema from its golden period in the 1960s.

Korean cinema in the late 50s and 60s was quite subversive in terms of its bold portrayal of women. Unlike contemporary Korean films, a lot of the Korean films from this time period heavily relied on melodramatic convention and dealt with women’s desire. Though the endings of these films were often less than satisfying, the female protagonists of the films — who were willing to put their own needs and desire on top of everything — were quite striking. I was very much inspired by them. Of course, classic melodramas from Hollywood (Douglas Sirk) and literary counterparts of the genre inspired me as well. I wanted to utilize melodrama, a genre that most audiences are familiar with, but also go beyond its conventions by focusing on a strong female protagonist.

“Never Forever” stars two acclaimed actors at quite early stages in their careers, Vera Farmiga and the Korean actor Ha Jung-woo. Can you tell us a bit about how you cast the film? Did you have these actors in mind as you wrote the script? I didn’t have any actors in mind while I was writing the script. But just about the time I started to polish the script, a friend of mine asked me to come to a screening in New York. The film was Debra Granik‘s wonderful film “Down to the Bone.” I fell in love with Vera on screen. She has an amazing talent to disappear into her roles completely and her cinematic presence is so strong. Her face is like a map with which you can explore the emotional landscape buried in her heart. Her presence challenges you, in the best possible sense.

Jung-woo was featured in a small independent Korean film called “The Unforgiven,” and I was blown away by his performance. Later when I met him in person and had him read the part with Vera, I knew that he was not an ordinary young actor. His charisma was overwhelming. Halfway through the reading, Vera blushed and proclaimed, “I think it is better to leave mystery between the two of us.” We all agreed and canceled the remaining reading sessions immediately. It was a risky thing to do, but I was confident of the decision. The relationship of their two characters, Sophie and Jihah demanded mystery. And to make the most of it, I tried to shoot all of the scenes with Jihah and Sophie sequentially so that the audience could witness their intimacy grow as it did in reality.

Your body of work tends toward a more experimental approach to filmmaking. “Gina Kim’s Video Diary” (2002) is a durational surveillance film which observed you battling an eating disorder and depression, while “Invisible Light” (2003) is a fractured narrative which links together Los Angeles and Seoul through two women who are unknowingly connected. Why did you move toward a more linear narrative form in “Never Forever”? It may sound strange but I never intended to move toward more “conventional” cinema. The story naturally came to me with the form itself. The body (image) of Sophie moved certain ways resulting in certain consequences, which ultimately created a more straightforward narrative structure. For me, the form and the content are one. For example, my most recent feature length film is an essay film called “Faces of Seoul.” I started to collect images of Seoul (still photography, home video footage), and somehow managed to write voice-over, looking at the footage repetitively.

Your film crosses many classifications; it is a US/Korean co-production, it is an American independent film which looks at race and class in very different ways than other films which are often seen at film festivals such as Sundance, and features a cast of both American and non-American actors. Can you elaborate on the kind of hybridity which seems to characterize many aspects of this film? I don’t think I would have been able to make the film at all had I known the weighty implication of such big words as “the first US/Korean co-production” or “identity politics”! As odd as it may sound, I have to admit that all of the characters that I created so far reflect myself to a certain degree. As a Korean-born and -educated filmmaker who lived and worked in the US for a while, I have natural tendency to reach toward hybridity. Not because I believe it to be more enticing, but because I believe in the complexity of the world. Fortunately or unfortunately, I am drawn to things that are hard to define, whether they are people, things, philosophy or politics. They are better agents for reaching to the truth, which often comes across as ambiguous and precarious at best.

What are you working on now? I am developing a feature film set in a camp town/military base in Korea. It is a mystery drama that deals with a crime committed by a US Army stationed in Yongsan in the 80s. The film is not about the crime itself but more about the people who are (marginally) involved in the crime and how it changes their lives. I also have another project that will be shot later this year about (Asian) food and family.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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