AN INTERVIEW WITH BORA KIM
This is an edited transcript of an interview with South Korean director Bora Kim, who we hosted on our podcast, Two Virgins. The full podcast episode can be found on Spotify here.
Bora Kim is a South Korean filmmaker and holds an MFA in film directing from Columbia University. She recently directed the award-winning film 'House of Hummingbird', which won more than 39 awards, including Tribeca Film Festival's Best International Narrative Feature, the Blue Dragon Film Award for Best Screenplay, and the Grand Prix of the Generation 14plus International Jur. Bora Kim talks to Teresa and Sam about the intentional and intimate crafting of House of Hummingbird and the reception of her film in South Korea and internationally, as well as breaking the narrative about what it really feels like to go through adolescence.
Teresa: How much does the movie House of Hummingbird reflect on your own experiences growing up?
Bora Kim: Well, of course, when I was working on my first draft, it felt like a really personal story, but, you know, as a filmmaker, you structure your story. Of course, you bring your experiences or the deep emotions you felt when you make the film, (especially when you’re making your first feature film), but I don't see this film as my personal story anymore because it's an outcome of an endeavor of six years.
Throughout the six years, I was actually working like a mathematician. When structuring scenes, I was always thinking about how to bring suspense, rhythm, or conflict. I was mean to Eunhee. I was very faithful to the notion that the main character had to suffer so that the audience could enjoy the film more, but I didn't want to bring suffering for no reason. There has to always be a reason.
Making the structure for this film was hard because, seemingly in this story, nothing is really happening. But to me as a writer, I see the story as very dynamic and spectacular. Of course there's spectacles happening inside of her (Eunhee), but you need to work a lot as a director to make daily lives special and have ongoing conflict and resolution.
Teresa: One of the things that impressed me so much about the film was how accurately you depicted what being in middle school feels like. When I watched this film, it activated so many feelings that I forgot I had in middle school. When you were making this film, how did you so accurately piece those feelings together? I'm only 20 and I'm already forgetting.
Bora Kim: Hmm, that's a good question. I'm not a teenager anymore, and I didn't even want to make this story through the lens that everything is fine just because I’m an adult. I really tried to make this story with both the happiness and sadness of life.
A lot of people say, as if it were a habit, that they were happy when they were teenagers. They complain because they now have to do so many things, and they have to make money, and they are always romanticizing their teenage years. I see teenagers as minorities because they are financially dependent on someone and also emotionally dependent on someone. You're also physically growing, like during summer break, you grow so much. You have this growing pain that's really absurd.
We have this term in Korea called eighth grade syndrome, which is considered to be a joke. It’s like, Oh, why are you acting like that? Are you having eighth grade syndrome? They kind of all make fun of eighth grade people, and I thought it was very unfair. You cannot really see that period as a passing period. You cannot deny that period, and you cannot just ignore or overlook how you felt at the time.
It was very important for me to have distance because without healthy distance, as a creator, you depict the world in a negative way. That’s why I spent many years meditating and getting therapy so that I can emotionally have this healthy distance, so that I can just only focus on creating a story. To do that, I did a lot of meditation and also lots of research. Me and my assistant directors researched a lot about radio and TV shows back then. We meticulously studied what kind of radio shows or TV shows we should put throughout the film to have this period appeal.
We also had to think deeply, because if we showed some new scenes throughout the film, then they had to be very iconic and symbolic to Koreans and also abroad or to international audiences. It was ongoing research, and studying and recalling memories from my side and from the many, many people who are involved in the film.
Sam: So you just talked about some of the feedback that you asked for from different age groups. I was just wondering, what was some of the most helpful feedback that you got back?
Bora Kim: It’s not like one specific feedback, but there were some tendencies that I found whenever I got feedback. I found this tendency that almost everyone who read the script had different favorite scenes and different favorite characters. Not everyone liked the main character, Eunhee. Of course, the majority of the people like her, but some people like her father. Some people like the Chinese teacher character. Some people really, really love the lesbian character, Yoo-ri. She's so into herself in a good way! She loves Eunhee, but after she finishes her love, she just disappears because she did her best!
Everyone has different favorite scene, different favorite characters, and that actually made me feel very relieved. It made me think, oh, this could be a very interesting story. This film might be very, very interesting when it comes out.
Sam: You were talking earlier about kind of taking some time to research and to see the world exactly as it is, and I think that came through a lot in the news clips that you brought up, but also in how you merged politics with your art in a lot of the issues that were raised in the movie. They seem to kind of blend the political and the personal, and I especially saw that in terms of the kind of critique of the education system that was going on. I was wondering, how did you work to strike that balance?
Bora Kim: When you watch art films or independent films, you can feel who the director is, because the director puts so much effort and love towards the film and because the film kind of shows and explains what kind of life values and politics the director has. I think my perspectives in life as a person naturally apply when I make a film.
I intended to have this parallel between a personal story and political story, because I see the world in that way, You're not an individual. I mean, you are an individual, but your life is always connected and mingled with everything. Your life is always mingled with people that you meet, your society, your school, and your neighborhood. Everything is mingled with everything, and you get affected by a lot of facets of your life. Your taste is an outcome of you growing up, where you grew up, and what friends you hung out with. I like the famous notion that the personal is political. So I wanted to make this film as Eunhee’s coming of age story, but also South Korea’s coming of age story. I see the parallel between Eunhee’s inner growing and the inner collapse of everything. Everything around her can be linked with the actual physical collapse of the Seongsu Bridge.
Teresa: Do you have particular memories of this event and how it impacted you and the way that you saw your own life?
Bora Kim: I grew up in Seoul and I still live in Seoul and the bridge was very close from my neighborhood. That was a very unforgettable day. I felt sad. None of my friends or family members died because of the accident, but I felt defeated on that day. I couldn't really articulate why I felt that way, but later when I grew up, I knew that that feeling came from a collective sadness, and I think I was connected to the world.
Even though my relatives or friends didn't die from the accident, I couldn't be happy. I couldn't just feel relieved because that accident felt like it happened to me too; by seeing the deaths of a lot of people, especially teenagers who were similar to my age back then. When I was making this film, I started to do research on the photos of the accident. Just by looking at photos of the broken bridge collapsed, it made me physically suffer. When I was looking at the photos, I felt a deep-seated pain coming up.
I remember one online comment of House of Hummingbird. He said, "The day the bridge collapsed, my baby was born. Whenever we have our child’s birthday, I think about the bridge collapsing." That was very memorable comment because you kind of see death as always close to your life. When things happen to someone else, it has an effect on you, too.
Like many other national tragedies like 9/11 or the earthquakes in Japan, I wanted to make that connection that you are largely affected by everything that's happening around you.
Teresa: In the film, the sister almost dies on the bridge, but by chance she didn't. I feel like that was already a connection towards someone close to you being impacted by a world event. Why do you think it was necessary for you to have Eunhee’s teacher to die on bridge? Why this extra tragedy in the movie?
Bora Kim: In the rough cut of the film, the film was two hours and forty-four minutes. In the original screenplay, Eunhee’s sister survives from the accident because on that morning, she was fighting with her father and she missed the bus. There was this really long monologue of the sister saying she really wanted to kill herself because she was so depressed after fighting with her father, but she survived because of the fight and she cries in that scene. I really liked the scene, but we had to edit it because of the structure.
I wanted to show that life is not simple. Life is very complex. Seemingly good things or seemingly bad things might not always turn out and lead to good things, sometimes bad things, bad accidents, bad relationships might bring good things in your life in a different way.
You never know how one thing leads to another. In the same context, I wanted to bring in Eunhee’s teacher’s death. Your loved one survived, but the other one, that you really love and actually care about more than your family at the moment, died. I think that that is our life. The Seongsu Bridge collapse was like that, too. How could anyone think the bridge could collapse? That was shocking. How could anyone imagine the twin towers could collapse? We're all shocked. As a Korean, that accident was kind of a wake up call for us to really think what it means to be human beings and how we should view everything.
At the time, we had these two major national tragedies, which was the Seongsu Bridge collapse and the next year, Sampoong Department Store also collapsed. Within those two years, we lost so many people and that happened in our everyday daily lives. You went shopping and then, all of a sudden, the department store collapses. That was so sudden and so unexpected. I think tragedy always happens that way. It doesn't knock on your door and ask, 'Hello? Can I go into your life?' No, it just happens. And you kind of face that accident all of sudden, without any notice.
Sam: You were revealing that in the rough draft, the sister actually did cry. I noticed throughout the film, I think every member of the family has a scene of them crying. Why did you choose to show them crying? What did you feel like that gave to the audience?
Bora Kim: Actually, not all the families were able to cry, but the family members who cried the most were male family members: the father and brother. A lot Korean female audiences came to me and asked questions about why the men are only crying in this film.
Of course , they also know the answer. In a male dominated society and patriarchal society, who has this freedom to express emotions more? Who sees themselves as pitiful people who have more pity on themselves? I think it’s men.
I think the women in this film are very, very resilient. They go through a lot suffering, but they don't complain. Eunhee’s mom does everything, but she never complains. That's why she looks so lost. But the father, he goes out and takes dance lessons, but he cries over his life. The brother, for some reason, cries on the day the bridge collapses.
I think in Korean society and everywhere, men tend to show their emotions more, but in a twisted way. They learn they shouldn't cry, and when they cry, sometimes it's very twisted, or it's out of nowhere or their emotions are expressed in a different way – maybe it’s violent. At the root of the patriarchy, I think everyone is a victim. No one is a winner. The father and the brother, especially the brother character, might be seen as a mean person, but he's also suffering.
He suffers a lot from educational pressure, but he doesn't know how to express his emotions, so that compressed emotion bursts out in the context of the bridge collapsing. It was Eunhee’s mom who tries to caress Eunhee in a maternal way at the hospital, but the father just cries out of nowhere because I think that cry comes from his own life and his own suffering.
I think he's seeing his suffering by seeing his daughter's suffering. I just wanted to show these two main characters crying, to ask the question that these people are also suffering. They’re not bad people. This was something that I was really aware of when I was creating characters. I wanted to always bring both sides of the characters.They're not just good people or bad people.
Teresa: Were you surprised by the reception of the film and how many people could relate to like its subtleties? Also, did you notice any differences between what people related in a South Korean audience versus an international audience?
Bora Kim: I think in a broad sense the feedback that I got was similar. I think people really love the journey and the main characters on this journey. I think they related to Eunhee’s journey because I think, in the end, everyone is on their journey. I think that people feel very, very connected to Eunhee because they see themselves in the character. Of course the reaction in South Korea was sensational, almost to the point that I felt overwhelmed.
This film actually got best film at the Baeksang Arts Awards, which is one of the top three major film awards in Korea. This film was the second film to win by a female director in their history. Actually, it was the first film that got the best film award as a first feature film. As an indie filmmaker, you usually don’t even get nominated for that category.
This category was more for studio films or big budget films. I was very surprised that this film got so many awards in Korea. It was a rare experience for an indie film, especially a first-time indie film, to be nominated and get these major Korean film awards.
The reaction from Korean audiences was sensational. I remember one Korean female came up to me and said, you gave me the vocabulary and language to my trauma that I couldn't really articulate.
Korean woman suffer a lot when they're growing up because the world is not fair. I remember when I was in high school, my homeroom teacher asked for this woman to be vice president of the class, even though we elected her as president. He said, because you're a woman, why don't you give your president's spot to the guy who got vice president?
That was traumatic when I was in high school, and that sort of thing happens everywhere.
Also when I watch films in Korea, many directors depict teenage girls as girls who are only interested in boys, or are just really easygoing and one dimensional. I think in media around the world, girls are depicted as airheads. So, audiences really find it amazing to see their real faces depicted on film. This film took six years to make, and it was a really hard process of course, but I think as a director, seeing these reactions from audiences made me so happy.
I also realized that I think I made this film to be connected to the world and share things with people. That audience reaction really made me think about what it means to be an artist and why I still want to continue making films in the future.
Sam: What about this story made it take six years to tell, and what direction do you feel you’re going to go in the future?
Bora Kim: No commercial investors wanted to invest in this film, because they didn't think that this film would be successful commercially. Our main character is a middle school girl, and a lot of people actually told me to change the main character into a high school girl so that I could cast a famous actress who's in her early twenties. I didn't listen to those comments because I wanted to make the main character an eighth grader. The first drafts only took two months. I could have finished the script earlier than six years, but this funding process took many years because I got many, many different funding sources.
In terms of my next film, I'm working on a sci-fi film and it's a big, budget film. It's a whole different genre!