Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Interview with Gina Kim, director of NEVER FOREVER

Sophie's Choices
By Ed Park

Gina Kim’s NEVER FOREVER, a hothouse of italicized emotion and pregnant pauses, received its world premiere at Sundance this year. Star Vera Farmiga, best known for her role in THE DEPARTED, told the New York Times it was “one of the most visceral love stories I’d ever read;” intensely present in nearly every frame, she’s as compelling a wit’s-end heroine as you’ll see on screen this year. Ed Park interviewed Kim via e-mail.

Cinevue: NEVER FOREVER’s "plot keyword" on IMDB is "interracial relationship"—a label that's pretty reductive and yet right on the money. On the one hand, you have the story of a well-to-do woman (Sophie, played by Vera Farmiga) whose successful, infertile husband (Andrew, played by David McInnis) has become suicidal and withdrawn, complicating her desire to become a mother. This leads her to hire someone to inseminate her, a situation that could certainly work as drama, without the element of race. But the story is deepened by the fact that Sophie is white and both her husband and her lover (Jihah, played by Jung-woo Ha) are Korean. (When Jihah tells her that Andrew resembles him, there's a little VERTIGO frisson.) Was the issue of race integral to the film’s conception, or did you have the dramatic kernel of the story first?

The race element was definitely one of the jumping-off points for NEVER FOREVER. The story came along when I started to teach at Harvard University. I had never lived on the East Coast before and was struck by how Boston lacks ethnic diversity. I became more conscious of my own race than ever before (having been born and raised in Korea, I had very little awareness of race). I became intrigued by how Asian people are perceived in the mainstream culture. I was always aware of how Asian women are overtly sexualized in American pop culture, but had very little knowledge about how Asian men are perceived. Most of them are completely de-sexualized, and are very rarely portrayed as subjects of desire. But of course there are exceptions, who often “happen” to be good-looking, successful professionals (lawyers, doctors etc.) who went to ivy league schools. When I investigated the distinction, I realized that it is a class issue more than anything else. Asian working-class men, who are poor first-generation immigrants, are often completely desexualized—unlike, say, Latino laborers. On the other end of the spectrum, the upper-class Asian men are the ones who are supposed to be desirable enough to get Caucasian women. I wanted to subvert this stereotype. Jihah is the poor immigrant, but I wanted to portray him as a sexually-charged man. Andrew is the perfect sexy Asian man but his sperm is weak and therefore, he is de-sexualized on the most basic level.

Cinevue: Were there films that influenced you in terms of tone or subject matter? Given NEVER FOREVER’s thorough melodrama and engagement with race, were you thinking of films like IMITATION OF LIFE or FAR FROM HEAVEN? Given the "secret patrimony" angle, were you giving a nod to all to the Korean soap operas that are so popular around Asia and the diaspora these days?

Douglas Sirk’s films influenced me greatly, as did some European films such as BELLE DE JOUR. But the most inspiring ones for me, in writing NEVER FOREVER, were Korean films from the 1960s. I was teaching Korean cinema at Harvard when I first conceptualized NEVER FOREVER. I was fortunate enough to get some 35mm prints of classic Korean cinema for the class screenings. I of course had seen all of them long ago, but when I watched them again to teach, I was impressed with how subversive they were, both aesthetically and thematically. Films such as MADAME FREEDOM (Han Hyong-mo, 1956), THE HOUSEMAID (Kim Ki-yong, 1960) and THE HOUSEGUEST AND MY MOTHER (Shin Sang-ok, 1961) moved me deeply with their vivid depiction of female characters. Each one is driven by her own desires and struggles for them. The endings of these films are often less than satisfying, but they inspired me nevertheless. I started to wonder what would happen if I put the same woman character in contemporary cinema without sacrificing her integrity at the very end. The result was a melodrama that strictly focuses on the psychology of a woman character, rather than the plot of a love affair itself.

Cinevue: This is a great role for Farmiga—she's in practically every scene, most of them intense if not downright traumatic, and we live for those few glimpses of her smiling. How did she come to be in your movie? What was it like working with her and with your other actors? (How did you find Jung-Woo Ha, who plays Jihah?) Often, she's plunged into scenes where every other actor is Asian/Korean—during the scenes with church members, was she aware of what was being said in the script?

NEVER FOREVER is not a dialogue-heavy film, so I was desperately looking for the right actor for the role of Sophie, someone who not only could ‘play’ the role but also ‘become’ the role. I first saw Vera in DOWN TO THE BONE and was blown away by her performance. She has the ability to disappear into the character she plays. So, I sent her my script and we met at a small café in Soho. I was convinced that Vera was the Sophie that I’d been looking for the minute she walked into the café. Vera is both transparent and mysterious. Her body always creates a cinematic tension within a frame. Her face is like a map with which we can explore a character’s heart. Thanks to her tremendous cinematic presence, I had a relatively easy time creating the Sophie character without having to explain much with dialogue. The chemistry between Jungwoo and Vera as two actors and fellow artists were beyond belief. They actually didn’t want to meet each other before the shoot so that they could retain the mystery until the first day of shoot. I wanted to shoot the sex scenes in a sequential order, so that we could exploit the awkwardness and tension in real life. Of course, it was extremely risky but it ended up beautifully working out. I could tell the intimacy growing between the two actors from one scene to another!

Cinevue Though Jihah is from Korea, he lives in Chinatown (rather than somewhere else in the metro area with a greater concentration of Koreans). Was this simply a practical matter, or a comment on Sophie's perception of "Asianness"?

It was to portay Jihah as a total outsider. He, of course, suffers from extreme isolation in the U.S. since he is an illegal immigrant. But he refuses to be part of the Korean (or Korean-American) community as well, and chooses to live in Chinatown. Things can be easier for him if he chooses to compromise. But he stubbornly goes his own way in terms of pursuing his American dream. I wanted Jihah to be a man of strong will, who is not afraid of loneliness and not willing to compromise his integrity by pretending to be someone other than himself.

Despite the full-bore melodrama, the film subtly shifts our sympathies, and even the plot is left with an erasure of sorts. The title is evocative and yet elusive; the delicate ending is fascinating in its ambiguity. In your mind, is there a clear narrative connecting what's happened in the movie to this final scene? (Semi-spoiler alert—maybe read this after you see the movie.)

I think it is quite clear that the baby in Sophie’s belly is Jihah’s, but I didn’t want to show Jihah, because it would diffuse the real question. For me, the real question was “Is she happy? Did she achieve what she wanted?,” not “Who is she with?”— which differentiates this film from the typical melodrama. (End spoiler alert)

In NEVER FOREVER, who Sophie ends up with really is not the point. In this context, NEVER FOREVER can be considered a coming of age story —a bildungsroman—more than a melodrama. For the ending, I wanted to make it clear that she fulfilled what she longed for, and therefore achieves happiness at the end. The best way to imply that is to make her pregnant again, since pregnancy has a different meaning for Sophie than it does for other typical female melodrama characters. For Sophie, the fetus is an agency that makes her realize what she really wants out of her life. It is her desire, dream, and ultimately, her life.

So, in the climactic confrontation scene with Andrew, when Sophie says, “This baby is mine,” she is not talking about motherhood but rather is explicitly expressing the desire to live her own life. The irony is that it all started as a sacrifice for her husband, but ended up becoming her self-fulfillment. In a way, Sophie became a whore by becoming a mother and ultimately, blurs (and hopefully negates) the boundary between the two stereotypes of women: the mother and the whore.

Ed Park is a founding editor of The Believer and a former film critic at The Village Voice. He blogs at The Dizzies. His debut novel, Personal Days, is forthcoming from Random House next year.

(Originally appeared on Cinevue, the blog for the Asian American International Film Festival, July 15, 2007)

4 comments:

mhigh said...

Wow, this was certainly a heart twister... All characters were so intense - it has left me in a very melancholic mood! I lived in Korea for two years, and I'm an immigrant too, married to an American... I can relate on so many levels.

Evilyn Garnett said...

I understood the influence of the sirk melodrama and european movies. But I thought moving it to a contemporary setting did not work. The actors, all good, motivations seemed implausible and Farmiga was dressed like lady Di in the 1980's. I totally understood the kind of heroine Kim was alluding to, but though you can love your influences, you shouldn't be so slavish that they cloud your judgement, which is what imho, made this interesting movie ultimately a failure. Also, you can't film New York to look like Claude Chabrol's Paris without making me, for one, laugh out loud.

Lu said...

I'm speechless... I absolutely loved this movie. Vera Farmiga and Jingwoo created an intense and passionate play... It is one of a kind movie/storie where the classics meet contemporary.. Bravo Gina Kim!.

B. E. Berger said...

Magnificent! Kept me enthralled throughout. The emotions are real.