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An online magazine about Korean culture, food and hallyu based in Toronto, Canada

Reel Asian Interview: Gloria Kim

Image courtesy of Reel Asian

Image courtesy of Reel Asian

I recently had the chance to chat with Gloria Kim about her short, Flamenco, as well as her filmmaking at a cafe in Toronto. Gloria’s short, Flamenco, screened at this year’s Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival (Reel Asian) and she won their “So You Think You Can Pitch” competition in 2013 for the short. It was a fascinating interview so keep reading for all her answers.

The Interview

Hello, can you please introduce yourself and tell us why you became a filmmaker?

I was always a writer ever since I was a little kid. I remember I would write stories; it was just what I did. I mean, you’re a writer too so you get it right?

Sure.

You’re being transported and channeling and all of those wonderful things that happen when we create. But when I was in my early 20’s I went through some trauma that kind of stopped my voice. So I thought, ‘oh my god, I think I’m going to die if I don’t create something, if I don’t express myself.’ I was doing some continuing education, just learning about research and fact-checking just because I thought that would be a fun way to get into magazines and stuff like that.

I happened to see there was a film course at Ryerson. My grandfather was a filmmaker, and my two uncles, one of them had a television show and the other was a producer and screenwriter in Korea and I remember my cousin saying to me ‘you have to love films; it’s in your blood.’ And I thought ‘why don’t I just take a film class?’ and see what happens.

I did and literally when I picked up the camera and looked through the viewfinder, I just, something happened, I just knew that this was what I was here to do. It was to make films.

That’s a wonderful feeling, when you know what you want to do.

Yeah, yeah, right. Well, you’re also a writer so that’s a vocation as well.

That’s true. Can you tell us about your short film, Flamenco, which screens at Reel Asian?

Yeah, I like to say it’s a story within a story about lust, loneliness and obsession. And it’s set in the world of flamenco dance. I just wanted to really explore the tricks that the mind plays on us when we’re cycling in obsession, right. And in this case, it’s an obsession, this woman’s obsession with this man who she sees. Just how that can just create a wildness of imagination.

So I just wanted to explore that concept and I really loved the idea of using the form of filmmaking. Let’s see this happening to this character who’s a part of this film production but really they’re making a film about a school that’s going to do this thing, this Carmen, and they’re going to do it on stage but really it morphs into this thing where she sees herself in the gypsy camp, right. I just thought it would be interesting to show layers in the mind, just in that metaphor of watching filmmaking. I really love stuff that’s kind of meta, right, and this was my opportunity to do that.

Excellent. When I watched Flamenco, one of the things that struck me was how visual it was because there was very little dialogue and it’s expressed through the dance. Did you mean for the dance to speak for itself?

Yeah, I really wanted to talk about subtext and I wanted to talk about, like so much of communication happens non-verbally in our daily lives, right. We have non-verbal cues, we pick up on each other’s energies. We’re human beings and we like to pretend that we’re different and separate from animals and it’s all rational thought and logic. But it’s really not. Love and loneliness and obsession and jealousy, any of those kinds of feelings; it’s all emotions.

So I just thought, the thing with Flamenco is that so much of the dance that tells a story, I think in such a vivid, vivid way that I was so attracted to it. So for me, it just made sense that what we were seeing on screen was what was going on with these characters. You know, you saw in their faces and their reactions, and it transmuted into dance, so yes.

So that kind of leads me to my next question, was the dance itself the inspiration for the film?

Well, the flamenco dance was definitely the inspiration. In 2011, I made a short documentary for the Ontario Arts Council for their Ontario dance program, called Why Do I Dance. We featured 13 different dance groups and like 60 different dancers. One of the groups was flamenco and of all the groups that we shot, I was like ‘oh my god, flamenco is just so storytelling.’ There’s so much there that you can just feel, and so much of it is about expression, because the form of dance is from way back with Gypsies and the Moors and the Jews. It started out as music, right, and it was an expression of an oppressed people so it was very, very expressive and evocative. And then they added dance to it.

For me, it was like ‘oh my goodness, there’s film here. I need to make the film.’ I loved the idea of looking at it, because to me this is like yes, this is about obsession but it’s also very much about loneliness, right. When I was a little girl, I remember my dad saying to me, I think I was 12 or 13, he said ‘you know, the human condition is inherently lonely. You will always feel loneliness in your life.’ I remember thinking, ‘oh my god Dad.’

That’s such a sad thing to say.

I know, right. It’s so profound, right. But it is definitely like a real truth. Like whatever it is, whatever metaphor you want to use, leaving the garden of Eden or leaving the womb or the separation. Aristotle had this, I think it was his theory of poetics, he has this story where all souls were one. They were double souls, and then they created so much trouble for the gods that they split the souls and they threw them flying and the two souls have spent their entire existence looking for each other, right. I feel like there’s a real truth and I was very fascinated by it.

You know when you’re a creative person, when you’re a writer, you spend so much time in your head and imagining things so there can be loneliness. I mean it’s the most wonderful thing but can also sometimes be very acute, so I just thought that, to me, it spoke to all of those things. And I was just very attracted to, I guess something about the fact that this was a dance form for people who were on the fringes.

Part of the short, the part that appears to be flashbacks to lovemaking, is shot differently than the rest. What was the significance of that?

Well, I shot on Super 8 and I just really wanted to shoot on film and shooting on film is incredibly expensive, right, because of the processing. But Super 8, if you shoot only a little bit, it’s still kind of obtainable. Like you can’t shoot synch sound for Super 8 but you can still have incredibly beautiful imagery. It just has a quality to it, an unexpectedness that you will never, never get in digital. I think we shot on the red, because through the pitch competition, the ‘So You Think You Can Pitch’ competition, part of the package was that we would have use of the red camera at Charles Street Video so that was just amazing. My cinematographer was amazing.

My first couple of independent shorts were shot on film, like 35 and 16 and I just really wanted to go back and shoot on that incredibly romantic medium. And just because it was such a fantasy for her, like memory/fantasy whichever one you want to think of it as, like clearly something to her was such a different world, I wanted to separate the two visually so that you could really feel it. I feel like a lot of shows or movies, when they do memory and they shoot it in the same format, you can really feel that it’s not memory, that it’s digital you know, it just has a different feeling.

It did give it a different, dream-like feel to it.

Yeah, so that was why I shot it differently.

You kind of spoke to this a little bit but at the end of the short, one is left wondering if any of it was real or was it a dream? It really made me wonder.

Nice, oh lovely. You have to tell me what you thought.

Of course, but what did you want the audience to draw from it? Did you want to make them think and question it?

Yeah, I did, I very much did. I just feel like, and maybe this is the romantic in me but I really feel like we live our lives and we really rely on certain signifiers as concrete truths and realities, you know what I mean. And that’s fine, we need that to function and live in an everyday world. Just as an artist, as someone who’s spiritual and also someone who’s seen people close to me pass away, I’m really seeing how temporal this all is, and the reality that we believe in, it’s not, there is no concrete reality, it’s just what we make of it, what we construct. What we habitually feel it to be.

When I talk to people, when I talk to strangers and I ask them their stories and they tell me all kinds of stories, all kinds of interesting stories. I find people’s lives are so epic. Maybe they don’t even know it.

I was talking to a cab driver yesterday and he was telling me about how he’s this elderly Pakistani cab driver who divorced his wife of like however many years, like 40 years, because he’d lost some contracts, he had a driving school. She was from a poor Pakistani family and his family was very well-off and when he lost the contract, suddenly she lost her mind and started hoarding money. She would take money, it would disappear and she would say their son had stolen it or this or that or the other. Something about a childhood fear made her act in this incredibly irrational way to the point that it broke up a 40 year marriage. I thought, it’s so crazy because he’s hale and hearty and doing well and still working, they have a house together still, they’re not in poverty but somehow she let this fear take over.

I just think that it’s so interesting that these things that are so strong that they create these fantasies or whatever you call them. And I’ve seen this time and again. I just think it’s so interesting. For good or ill, I think this is what we do as human beings. You know we’re storytelling beings and we’re constantly cycling in the stories that begin from our birth and that go generations back. You hear these family stories of people doing the same things over and over and over. They may not even know that of the past generation.

It’s just so interesting and crazy, my happening to choose film even though I had immigrated here when I was three and I’d never see my uncle’s television program, I’d never seen any of my uncle’s films or my grandfather’s films. I just kind of distantly heard about it when I was 16, when our cousins came from Korea to visit. I don’t know, it’s just so interesting.

An interesting take on the nurture versus nature debate.

Yeah, it’s definitely all connected.

You actually spoke a bit about this but you won Reel Asian’s So You Think You Can Pitch competition in 2013 with Flamenco. Can you tell us a little about the competition and how winning it benefitted your short?

Yeah, we did a pitch, it was an incredibly fun experience. I had asked my choreographer, Carmen Romero and one of my singers, Fernando to be a part of the pitch. So we rehearsed the pitch and the dance and he had come up with the music, right because it’s all impromptu, they just do it on the fly. There’s sort of rules that they kind of follow but it’s so interesting because it’s so improvisatory. I mean, there are lots of songs that are traditional but they use in different ways and so I told the story of what was going on and I had them act it out and sing and dance with it. So it was a really, really fun experience.

It was humongous, it made all the difference in making the film because I did get a grant from the Canada Council, the Dance on Screen, and the Toronto Arts Council but there’s never enough money. And you want to pay people for their time. You don’t just want to pay suppliers, even though what you pay suppliers is negligible anyways, they’re doing you giant favours. The competition was just incredibly helpful. They, gosh, what all did they do, a ton of equipment, something like $20,000 worth of equipment which made a huge difference. And it’s always nice to win some kind of an award. [laughter] It was a wonderful experience.

And speaking of that, do you have any advice for young filmmakers or anyone looking to make a film?

Just to keep making them. Keep doing it, try your best and don’t be discouraged. It is sometimes discouraging but just keep making films. Work on your craft, it is a craft so don’t give up. It takes a really, really long time. Don’t just send out a couple of resumes, create your own work. That’s the number one thing I would say, is create your own work.

I saw that one of your shorts was screening with Albert Shin’s In Her Place.

Yeah, The Auction.

You were also speaking on a panel, can you tell us about it?

Yeah, it’s “Koreans Behind the Screens” talk, I think it’s Korean film week and I’m really honoured to be screening with Albert who is an incredible filmmaker. Oh my goodness, and his film is so beautiful.

It is.

Yeah, it’s phenomenal. It’s a short film I made called The Auction and it’s a semi-autobiographical children’s story about a little girl. I actually use some of my family footage from my parents’ wedding. Like I said, my mother’s family was very connected in the media so they had a news crew there so it was all filmed. I just wanted to, at the time when I made the film.

It’s about a little girl whose parents have immigrated and at school she wants to get along with the other girls and fit in. They’re talking about these Sindy dolls and they’re like ‘you can come and play if you get a Sindy doll too’, right. She’s been raised to kind of lower her expectations with gifts and stuff like that because her parents are immigrants and they’re struggling. So she sees this Sindy doll for auction and gets all excited and thinks ‘oh my goodness, maybe I can go to the auction.’

But there’s also this beautiful hanbok, which is like the Korean dress, it’s gorgeous and pink and it’s the same type of hanbok as the one her mother used to tell her all about. ‘Oh when I was married, I had this pink hanbok, it was so beautiful’ and she was like, ‘where is it?’ and her mother was like ‘I had to give it away because we couldn’t bring it over, blah, blah, blah.’ So when she sees it at the auction, she was like ‘what do I do?’

It was a little bit based in truth. My mother did actually have a pink hanbok that she wore to her engagement party and it was the most beautiful thing and my mom was actually a journalist, because in the story, her mom was a journalist, and she was one of ten women journalists in Korea so it was a big deal. And in many ways, their leaving was almost a tragedy. I mean, it was hopeful in the sense that they were coming to this new place but at the same time, they were leaving behind so much. So it was kind of, in many ways, my little homage to my parents. A way to say thank you and to acknowledge kind of the reality because I think kids can be a lot more mature than we give them credit for.

I think that’s human nature, that we don’t appreciate them until we’re older ourselves.

Yeah, absolutely.

One last question, are you working on anything new at the moment?

Yeah, I have a feature film that I have written; it’s called Debra and Mona. It’s about a young Korean stripper mother who has a nine year old bi-racial daughter and it’s kind of their dual story. The mother’s name is Debra and the daughter’s name is Mona.

So Debra’s whole thing is she was told by a fortune-teller when she was young that her destiny in life was to find the love of her life. She believes that she has found it in this guy who’s name is LaSarge who is this guy who was in Afghanistan and is all messed up and he’s a gambler. Her daughter Mona just absolutely adores him, she thinks he’s her dad.

But he, in the eve of the first act, he gets fired and takes all of their rent money and he takes off to make a big score on this game he heard of. But Debra has to pay the rent and she’d quit her job because she’d had it with being a stripper and she was supposed to go for an interview for an office job and her daughter was just expelled because she beat up on another girl who called her mom a stripper.

Wow, a lot all at once

Yeah, it’s like, I don’t know. I love it, I think it’s a wonderful story and I’m so excited about it. I spent a long time writing it and you know when you’re writing and you can tell you are channeling, it was like I channeled this story. I mean, it took forever to write because it didn’t all come out but I felt like I was definitely channeling the story. There’s just a lot of stuff, meaning and metaphor, that I was like ‘oh my goodness’ and for me, it was life changing.

It just got into the “Spotlight on Screenwriters”, an initiative through Women in Film and Video in Washington, DC which is kind of amazing and I have someone there who’s helping me so we’ll see what happens.

Good luck!

Thank you, I’m really excited about it.

I look forward to seeing it.

Yeah, me too. [laughter]

Well, that’s all I have for you. Thank you so much.

Thank you for taking the time.

Final Thoughts

I had a lot of fun interviewing Gloria because in a lot of ways, it was more of a conversation than a structured interview. In fact, we kept chatting after the recorder was turned off about life in general and a whole host of interesting stuff (huge thanks to Gloria for the lovely compliment of thinking I was significantly younger than I am). She was so comfortable to chat with and I can’t wait to see her feature film, Debra and Mona. As always, please let me know what you think in the comments.

Editor’s note: when I was transcribing the interview, I quickly noticed that it’s longer than my interviews usually are but since I think she offers a lot of insight, I didn’t crop or split it. 

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