By Jared Alex Tan
South Korean filmmaker Gina Kim is all about firsts — she was the first Asian woman to teach at Harvard’s Visual and Environmental Studies department (she now teaches Film, Television and Digital Media at UCLA), and her 2013 culinary film Final Recipe marked the first movie by a South Korean director to open to wide release in China since the signing of a 2015 trade agreement between the two nations.
Now, her latest film Bloodless — Kim’s first foray into virtual reality filmmaking — can be added to that list of growing achievements as well, having recently won the “Best VR Story” award at the 74th Venice Film Festival last month. Making the transition from traditional cinema to VR is no easy feat, and we were fortunate enough to sit down with her to learn more about the film and her thoughts on using virtual reality as a cinematic medium.
PFF: So for those who aren’t familiar with the film, can you give a short summary of what Bloodless is about?
GK: Bloodless is a VR experimental documentary — it’s based on a true story that happened in 1992, in a camp town in South Korea. A prostitute was mutilated and murdered by a U.S soldier stationed there, and it’s a poetic and not very direct rendition of what happened.
PFF: Your motivation to tell this story goes way, way back to your college years, so why did it take so long? Where you waiting for the right medium?
GK: Exactly. When it (the incident) happened in 1992, I was a freshman in university, and I participated in the protest for the soldier to be tried in Korea. We wanted protection for these prostitutes, because they really are the victims of the system.
I really wanted to talk about the story, because when we — “we” not meaning a small group, it was a huge protest nationwide — were campaigning, somehow the photo of the crime scene got out, and it ended up being used in the press. I felt…I still feel really terrible about it. I was thinking of the exploitation of the victim, the violence, and I really wanted to come up with a way to tell the story in a different manner. It’s an important story to be told, but is there a way to tell the story without telling the specifics of the story? Or, more importantly, without showing the body?
I was working on a feature film version of it for a long time, and every time I tried to do something it, I faced the issue of the ethics of representation. I came up with a story that summarises the event in a fictional way — but because there’s always a question of the ethics of representation in terms of the rendition of violence in a cinematic medium, so I just gave up in the end.
When I was introduced to this new medium of Virtual Reality, I realised that this was a really innovative medium…almost revolutionary in terms of how you let the viewer experience what’s going on in the scene, instead of putting them in a very passive position of a spectator. And that was the beginning of this VR project.
PFF: Prior to the production of this film, you had zero experience in VR. How hard was it to make that transition from being a traditional filmmaker to a VR filmmaker?
GK: I was very confused at first, because I had to get used to the idea that there was no framing — when you’re a filmmaker of two-dimensional cinema, your brain works in a certain kind of way, and everything is based on this small rectangle. With VR, I couldn’t embrace the fact that what I saw in real life would be what I saw in the final product, but that’s something that you deal with, and such new way of representation becomes a very powerful tool.
Thankfully, I was a media artist before a narrative filmmaker, and VR was very strangely similar to theatre more than cinema. Once I accepted the limits and potential of the medium, it actually became a lot easier, because you don’t have to lie…what you see is what you get. It’s not as specific or manipulative as 2D cinema, and it can be really liberating for a person like me.
PFF: What were some of the challenges when making this film?
GK: Ironically, the biggest challenge had nothing to do with VR – it was the research. Because it was such a brutal murder and such a heavy topic to talk about, just like I was struggling to come up with the right kind of tone and characters for the feature film, it was very difficult for me to set the right kind of narrative for VR and do research based on that.
We really wanted to be truthful to the actual event, but at the same time we aren’t simply re-enacting the violence…as a matter of fact there is absolutely no violence in my film. What I was trying to address was a bigger issue, not just this particular event, so how do I stay truthful, but then transcend it so that the audience will get the general idea without pigeon-holing into this one specific event?
Because of that, we had to do a lot of research and pre-location scouting – kind of just exploring all over South Korea and whatnot – and that was really hard. It was emotionally taxing because you end up sympathising with these women, so that was extremely hard for me and my team to deal with.
Another challenging part was post-production, because we were doing it in Korea and the United States at the same time. I was in the United States and in charge of the editing in a traditional sense, and the Korean team was in charge of stitching, but because they were so busy and weren’t working back to back, there would always be miscommunication — files go missing, things don’t match up, that kind of logistical stuff. And because it’s VR, if something goes wrong you can’t undo it. You have to start from scratch, and it’s hard to ask them to do it because it’s very labour-intensive.
PFF: Unfortunately I haven’t been able to watch the film, but based on what I’ve seen in behind the scenes videos it feels slightly horror-esque. You’ve also said that when people did watch the film, some of them started screaming. Were you expecting this? Did you want to evoke this kind of visceral reaction?
GK: Well…yes and no. It was not my intention to scare people, but I knew that it would. The streets that we filmed were scary to begin with, and when we were location scouting we were sometimes paralyzed with fear. The mise-en-scène is very spooky because of what’s happening there, and with the small alleyways and things like that it’s just inherently scary, especially when it’s dark.
And then there is this woman (in the film). She’s not exactly a ghost – not really dead, but not really alive either. It’s a spectral figure, and the audience feels like that’s the case when she starts roaming the streets. At first they aren’t scared, but as time goes by and the narrative proceeds, they feel something very uncanny about this woman, and the footsteps and everything becomes really scary.
What’s also interesting is that there is something inherently very scary about watching a VR film. You have a gaze, but you can’t really defend yourself against what’s going on around you. So you’re in an extremely vulnerable position, and I kind of felt that when I first watched a VR film about a diver. There was nothing scary about it, and if you were to watch it on a screen you wouldn’t find it scary. But when I was watching it on VR I was horrified, because you just feel really vulnerable. You have the gaze but not the body, so there is something very eerie about the viewing experience to begin with.
PFF: In a way, you kind of are the ghost.
GK: Exactly! A ghost is kind of like an embodied, repressed memory – it’s a historical event that happened, but was repressed, and now I’m trying to revive that event. By that definition, the film itself is a ghost, so in a theoretical and philosophical context, it’s inevitable that there is a sort of spookiness around this film.
PFF: What do you think is the future of VR? Will it ever replace traditional film, or stand beside it?
GK: I think they will co-exist very peacefully. After witnessing the evolution of cinema in the past 20 years or so, new things always happen…some of them become a failure, and some are a big success. I think VR will be a very effective and viable medium for all kinds of purposes.
The biggest difference of VR is that it allows the viewer to become somebody else. You can become a baby, you can become a disabled person walking on the streets, you can be anything. That opens up a whole new world, because — if put in a really good context — it allows you to experience the pain of others in a way, because you can be him or her yourself.
And because the human race loves a collective viewing experience, theatres will always exist, but 2D cinema will become more like classical music in the next hundred years. There will be “composers” who will make new “classical music”, and it’s more about spectacle, because that’s the kind of films that people will want to go to theatres and watch.
I think once VR stitching technology becomes available for common audiences, it’ll be like the explosion of YouTube ten years ago. Anybody will be able to make a VR film, anyone can post and stream it on their phones. It will be explosive…a lot of content made my non-professionals, just like YouTube videos.
I mean, cell phones existed in the 90’s too, but it was the size of a brick, and it was very expensive. These days cell phones have changed our lives…changed the human race, and I think that will inevitably happen with VR in the end. It will take some time, but I think it will happen.