In the first of a two-part inner view, Minji Kang speaks about the importance of family and home, the impact of music in her personal and professional life, and discusses the making of her film, ‘Requiem for Herstory’.
Hi Minji! Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Let’s start from the start. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
I’ve always been exposed to the world of art and music from a young age. However, in the last seven months of high school, I was recovering from health problems. Everyday felt like a battle, and I found myself falling easily into a great pool of depression. I was young, but I was put into a situation where I had to search for the meaning of life, and I had to find it.
How did film help you out?
I spent most of my days painting and playing music, trying to express what I have locked inside me. My passion for art, music, and storytelling brought me back to life. I realised how important it is to express my voice and vision freely.
It was a sensational realisation and an awakening moment for me. Soon after that, I found a perfect art form to combine all my interests: symbols, colors, music, philosophy, psychology, religion, myth and fairy tales – it was cinema.
It certainly is that amalgamation of styles. Which figures in cinema have inspired you the most?
There are two European directors who have greatly inspired me: Ingmar Bergman and Krzysztof Kieslowski. They have unique cinematic styles, and their films are a constant quest to search for and within human connections and the human condition.
We agree wholeheartedly! Take us through this moment of realisation.
In my early twenties, while I was studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I spent a lot of time looking into their works and studying Carol Jung’s psychology. Interestingly, the more I learned about Jung’s Collective Unconscious and his interpretation of the human psyche, the more I discovered and felt connected to the work of Bergman and Kieslowski.
I was drawn to their interpretations of time, death and eternity, most notably in Kieslowski’s ‘The Double Life of Veronique’, the Three Colors Trilogy, and ‘No End’, and Bergman’s ‘Wild Strawberries’, ‘Cries and Whispers’, ‘The Seventh Seal’, and ‘The Silence’. To me, Bergman and Kieslowski’s deeply sensational, thought-provoking films express a distinctive depiction of the mysterious mind. I’m also most fascinated by these filmmaker’s persistent need and desire to find the meaning of life and human nature. Their use of symbolism in terms of faith and spirituality is something that I have always felt connected to – the interpretation of time, death and eternity.
I wonder how your family took to all these discoveries of yours. South Korea is regarded as a country with strong Asian traditions, which might look at such a career suspiciously, but then again, Korean cinema also has a strong reputation at home and abroad.
Interestingly, the reaction from my family changes very subtly even to this day. Although their reaction does nothing or very little to my decisions, perhaps I’m too stubborn when it comes to protecting what I love and am passionate about.
You’re now based in the United States of America. How did this come about?
I came to America when I was fifteen years old to attend a highly competitive preparatory boarding school. It was my deliberate decision to leave home and study abroad. However, my decision to go to an art school instead of an Ivy League university brought my family great disappointment, I think.
Why is that?
I definitely felt the unspoken words that brought great distance and caused a great sadness in me. However, I enjoyed my days in art school tremendously, where I studied film and film aesthetics. Every day was inspirational, and I was truly doing and learning what I desire and am passionate about. I also enjoyed the six years in graduate school studying film directing.
You’ve certainly done well in creating well-received films. Wouldn’t that come into the equation here?
I think my family has always had an expectation that I would teach after my graduate studies. In Korea, teaching is traditionally regarded as a respected profession, particularly for women. I have a very little desire to do so, especially in my 30s. Perhaps in my 60s I’ll feel that I have something to pass on to the next generation, but right now, I want to pursue making films, one project after another.
I always find family dynamics fascinating, as we don’t get to choose our family, at least after we’re born. We are all put into a group of people, and we try to understand each other throughout our lifetime, and we try to learn from each other. No one is perfect, either. To this day, I try to find a balance, between following my passion and also not drifting too far away from my roots and family. It’s a great challenge.
It’s funny you mention that, because you’ve been in the United States now for over 15 years.
When I think of it, I can’t still make sense of how all of this time has passed. Yes, I’ve been living away from home and family for 17 years. I’ve visited them throughout, but now, I definitely feel there is a distant gap created between myself and my family over time.
But I don’t regret anything, because I have ardently followed my dreams, and will continue to walk my own path. It wasn’t a hard decision to make either, because I knew what I wanted, and I knew how hard this path would be, but at the end of the day, it was truly a path worth traveling on.
In a lot of your films, there are always characters exploring interesting links to the idea of the family, home, their points of origin. How much do these mirror your own experiences?
Many of my own experiences and the way I see and feel the world are probably reflected in my films. I’ve been away from home for quite some time now, and I’ve been travelling to many different parts of the world. Now, everywhere feels like home, but nowhere feels like home. “Home” is a constant and endless search for me.
Often I see myself trying to find it through or in my works, if that makes any sense. Perhaps that’s why most of my characters yearn for an anchor and the points of origin in their own worlds.
You mentioned something about gender earlier. Beyond your family, do you think your gender affects how others react to you and your works? Off the top of my head, I don’t recall a lot of very active female Korean filmmakers…
I honestly don’t know how to answer this questions articulately, but you’re right. It’s not easy to be a South Korean woman director working in the United States.
Often, the people I encounter in business or social gatherings, when I’m in a conversation and introduce myself, don’t seriously think I’m a film director. Even after they actually get to see some of my work, people don’t believe that I made the films, especially ‘The Loyalist’. They think I had established producers or production companies to make those films of mine.
How do you feel about that?
Whenever I have to walk though these experiences, I find myself becoming more persistent, and I try not to be affected because it’s pointless to get upset over it. All I need to do is to create; I must do the best work I’ve ever done. At the end of the day, it’s not about what other people think. It’s about my relationship with my own work, how it grows and transforms and ripens as I travel through my life.
You mentioned European filmmakers as a point of inspiration. Are there any films or filmmakers from Korea who have also influenced you?
You’re right, I’m more inspired and influenced by European masters and their films. At the same time, I’m sure influenced by Korean films without realising it. I read a lot of Korean folklore when I was growing up, and I’ve always been drawn to fairytales. These stories definitely influence my work. They’ve lasted for lasted for centuries, and they must have some profound lessons to be learned.
Some of your films certainly have a fairy tale element. I’m thinking of ‘Requiem for Herstory’.
For me, I like how the author of ‘The Wild Girl’, Kate Forsyth, writes about fairy tales. She says, “Fairy tales operate on more than one level. On the surface, they are magical adventures filled with wonder, enchantment, beauty, romance, danger, and the consolation of a happy ending. On a deeper level, however, they are serious dramas that reflect, symbolically and metaphorically, problems and pitfalls that can be very real in people’s inner lives. They offer a stage where the reader can act out universal fears and desires, and so resolve deep, subconscious tensions that they are, perhaps, not even aware of.”
My films contain “troubles at home” and a hero/heroine’s departure to the larger world, which is also a fundamental equation in most fairy tales. I want to create new, modern fairy tales, even if the stories are told through the horrible, dark and tragic in order for the story to transcend into the beautiful. Ultimately, I want to express the things worth living for by providing the viewer with an experience that is an opposite odyssey.
There is certainly trouble at home in the film. The story of a young girl struggling under intense familial pressures could be related to by many, of course. How much of this was a reflection of your own experiences?
My parents have never pressured me to become someone they want me to be. Because my relationship with my parents was rather distant and cold, and I don’t think while I was growing up they had the time or the mental energy to care for me particularly after my younger brother’s birth. Since I was about eight years old, I was encouraged to take care of myself like a grown-up. My father was studying in graduate school, and my mom was raising my baby brothers alone. She also had to take care of my older sister. As a middle child, being independent was one of my own responsibilities, but I enjoyed learning and playing, which kept me busy on my own. However, when I disappointed them by not doing well enough, the distance grew colder. They never pressured me with their own ideas on how I should live myself, but I sometimes felt how unspoken words were even heavier and more burdensome – I was dealing with high expectations that were unspoken.
While making ‘Requiem for Herstory’, I painted the countless feelings I felt when I was twelve years old. At that time, I was going through rigorous music training under three different teachers in order to make the entrance audition for the middle school of art and music. Among those three, two of them were very difficult to study under. Whenever their patience ran out, their temper soared high, and the rest of the lesson was filled with screaming and harsh criticism. It was dreadful. I didn’t respond well to their way of teaching.
How did that affect your aspirations in music?
Eventually, I transgressed and I poisoned my own desire to become a musician – I never got to the audition I had hoped to try out for at the end of that year. The feeling was bitter, and I never wanted to put myself in a similar situation ever again. It was one of the many reasons why I decided to study abroad where I was challenged by new ways of thinking and learning.
It is still incredibly influential, though. In an interview with Viddsee, you speak of learning to read music before you learned to read Korean. How much did this aid your filmmaking efforts? In a way, both film and music are relatively universal languages, so was there any cross-pollination between the two?
Yes, both film and music are relatively universal languages. Learning music from a young age always helped me trust my own instinct and follow what I truly feel, rather than think logically and try to construct a story in a cerebral way. Also, there are many ways to interpret musical notations and to form sounds, or written languages to the form of the visual. I don’t know exactly how, but somehow, I see the music as I visualise the film, and I see the film as I hear the music. It’s difficult to explain, but also I think it’s natural that you’d experience multiple sensations and visions when you are working with visuals, colours, music and so on. It’s all about expression, and what kindles the imagination and how they affect one another. After all, whether it’s music, film or language, it’s all about the means of communication. Whatever we create when we open a conversation with others and society.
Speaking of communication, you created a different spoken language for ‘Requiem for Herstory’. How much fun was it, and what was that process like? I imagine it to be a lot of throwing stuff to the wall to see what sticks. Was it a collaborative effort with the actors as well?
It was a lot of fun. When I was constructing the world of ‘Requiem for Herstory’ I imagine those characters had been isolated for many years, centuries even, living under an oppressed, airless, chilling ceiling of the household. That’s one of the reasons why the place where they live is filled with dust; they refuse to change. They refuse to open up to the world outside. They want to keep their precious child prodigy Yuri in their own world, to feed off from her beaming talent as if it is their own flesh. It was important that the way they communicate embraces some of the animal characteristics of human beings and also the characteristics of a lost language.
Collaborating with the actors and the cinematographer was extremely delightful; everyone was excited by the idea of creating something unique and meaningful. During the process of working with the actors, Kathryn (who plays the mother) came up with a great idea – she suggested that the language could be an altered mixture of several existing languages. I really liked that idea, because it implied that the characters had lost their identities and their place of origin.
Can you share a particular moment from this film that was especially difficult, and how you dealt with it?
Portraying Yuri’s transformation into a doll was the most challenging, because I didn’t want to use visual effects. I wanted the transformation to be intrinsic. How to accomplish that was a big question, but I collaborated with an innovative special makeup artist, who was be able to cast a face mask and a body part for the character.
In the film, the beginning of her transformation happens when she stands up and opens her hands. The violin flies into her hands, and she starts playing the song of requiem. At that moment I wanted to accentuate something. “Look closely, something striking is about to happen”. So when we filmed this particular movement, we actually shot the motions backwards and played it in real time in post-production. So on set, she’s actually dropping the violin and sitting down instead. Filming that particular shot was challenging, but also electrifying, because her movement was closely choreographed with thunder strike and lighting effects on set.
Yes, I remember being particularly struck by that scene.
That particular shot has always been my favorite moment in the film. Even though she’s becoming a doll, it is also the moment when the rigid chain that fastens Yuri is finally breaking down and being transcended.
Before we move on to another film of yours, you’ve mentioned how this idea for ‘Requiem for Herstory’ evolved from a dream, and how it may have inspired your filmmaking style as a whole. Were there any particular filmmakers that helped to further refine your dreamscapes? I’m thinking of someone like David Lynch; my students couldn’t understand his films partly because he himself was inspired by his own dreams.
Some of my dreams are extremely vivid and uncanny, or sometimes cryptic and symbolic. Over the time, I’ve gotten better at interpreting my unusual dreams and making sense of any messages they bring. Usually those otherworldly dreams are forceful enough to interrupt my days; perhaps that’s why they have also been great flames for me to kindle and to be influenced by.
I like David Lynch’s films, especially ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me’ and ‘Wild at Heart’. I am fond of his approach and sensations, and I certainly enjoy seeing his unique response to his own dreams. He’s truly an exceptional artist working in cinema. I’m sure my filmmaking style is influenced by him and the many other great masters in cinema I admire, but my way of portraying my dreams is mostly influenced by surrealist, impressionist paintings and many different styles of classical music, which gives me much wilder, bottomless, and more hypnotic senses and images.
Part two of the interview can be read here. Minji’s film ‘The Loyalist’ can be seen here. Find out more about her films at her website. We previously wrote about her films here, while our friends at CQ Magazine published her article on gender and identity.