Nabbing Best VR Story at Venice, Bloodless is veteran filmmaker Gina Kim’s (perhaps best known for 2007’s Vera Farmiga-starring Never Forever) 12-minute immersive stunner. The US-South Korea coproduction was also selected as part of this year’s IDFA DocLab Digital Storytelling program, which is where I experienced it, having gone into the VR Cinema without even bothering to read the synopsis. And because of my cluelessness, the story’s climax packed a punch I never saw coming — one that shook me to the core. This is another way of saying that if you plan on experiencing the project on a future headset near you, consider bookmarking this interview for later.
For those who can’t wait to hear more, read on. After just enough explanatory text to intrigue, but not give anything away, appears on screen, we enter a series of forlorn streets — near-empty spaces that leave plenty of room for the participant to inhabit. (Which also made me realize that less is often more with VR.) We hear the haunting sound of heels clicking on pavement, our ear constantly drawn to a sound just out of reach. A solitary woman, scantily clad, walks these neon-sad byways of South Korea. Like the sound of those snapping stilettos she’s also, frustratingly, forever evading our grasp. We sense her presence yet never see her face, merely catch glimpses of her thin form from frame to frame. She keeps us at a firm distance, though we’re compelled to get close. Only at the end do we — quite jarringly — become aware of the ghost that she is.
Similar to my favorite VR project of 2016, Notes On Blindness: Into Darkness, we the participant become an integral part of the piece — which in the case of Bloodless makes us unexpectedly, and horrifyingly, complicit in its story. But what exactly are we experiencing? From that synopsis that I initially neglected to read: “At first, it seems as if very little is happening in the VR film Bloodless, but the opening texts have already told us that evil is lurking. Since the 1950s, American military bases have occupied a considerable portion of South Korea’s habitable land, including 96 ‘camp towns’ that exist in a legal no man’s land. The soldiers stationed there are more than aware of this quirk. Believe it or not, these places have seen millions of women going into prostitution and tens of thousands of crimes being committed. Bloodless is based on a shocking event that occurred in 1992.”
That “shocking event” would be the particularly gruesome murder of one sex worker — cause of death brain hemorrhage, body found covered in powdered detergent to get rid of the evidence, two beer bottles and one coke bottle found inside her uterus, an umbrella penetrated 11 inches into her rectum. And U.S. Forces in Korea refused to extradite the suspected soldier. Twenty-five years later L.A. filmmaker Kim, a freshman in college in South Korea at the time of the killing (and a participant in the subsequent mass protests), finally figured a way to do justice to the tale.
Filmmaker was fortunate enough to speak with the Bloodless director about the untapped potential of VR, Asian-American co-productions, and turning an unspeakable tragedy into high art.
Filmmaker: I think many readers might be most familiar with your narrative work, especially Never Forever, which stars Vera Farmiga and Ha Jung-woo, and premiered at Sundance in 2007. Yet in addition to Never Forever, you’ve four feature-length films under your belt (not to mention short films), two of which are documentaries (Gina Kim’s Video Diary and Faces of Seoul). So did you ever consider tackling this story as a straightforward documentary?
Kim: No. As much as I respect and envy the clarity of the conventional nonfiction film, I find it very difficult to fit what I’m trying to say into that format. What I struggle to express is often behind and beyond what can be put into words or images. To me, truth (including cinematic truth) lies somewhere in between, and beyond what can be said or depicted.
Filmmaker: Though you do seem to move fluidly between various media forms, were there any specific challenges in transitioning to VR that you hadn’t expected?
Kim: Yes. It took me some time to get used to the very fundamental difference between 2D cinema and VR — that VR doesn’t have a frame! It was shocking at first, since frame is the most fundamental element of any cinematic project. With framing, a filmmaker is given authority to choose what to show to the viewers (albeit abandoning the rest of the world in the process). And then, with 2D cinema, you build a flow of a visual story shot by shot with editing. But these fundamental mechanics of cinema — framing and shot flow — don’t apply to VR. So it took me some time to get used to (or discover) the syntax and grammar of this new medium.
Ultimately, it was a liberating experience. The fact that I don’t have the autocratic power to dictate the frame and shot flow freed me in a way. I felt as though I was directing some sort of experimental theater piece, where the audience hunkers down in the middle of the stage and the actors perform across any and every corner of the theater.
Filmmaker: You also move fluidly between countries. Though you were born and raised in South Korea, you’ve been living and working in the States for over two decades. And in addition to Bloodless, you’ve formed other Asian-American co-productions in the past, even pioneering the South Korea-US film partnership with Never Forever). But what was this process like for a virtual reality project? I’ve heard from other new media-makers that Asia (and especially China) is far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to resources and infrastructure.
Kim: I actually have been trying really hard for many years to make film that wasn’t an international coproduction. But ironically, all of these “national” films fell through in the end — and in the meantime, I ended up producing other “transnational” films almost as a byproduct! At this point, I’ve finally accepted the inherent and resilient transnational nature of my films, and the status of my being.
In that light, I was always obsessed with the issue of sex laborers for U.S. soldiers stationed in Korea. Camp towns have existed in South Korea since the Korean War, though we never want to admit it. The 96 camp towns in South Korea belong to neither Korea nor the U.S.. The women and their (often biracial) children who grow up there also don’t belong anywhere. To me, they are the most tragic examples of “transnational,” so far removed from all the cool images that come to our mind when we hear the word. It was inevitable that the film had to be another international co-production, powered by producers and academics that understood both South Korea and the U.S., so that we could try to capture the space in between. I was really fortunate to be sponsored by Venta VR and Dankook University in Korea and to have support from UCLA.
Having completed Bloodless as another international co-production, my impression of the Asian VR industry is that they are definitely more open to this new medium and ready to experiment on all fronts — commercial branding, media activism, medical treatment, educational tool. Also in Korea and China, there is considerable scholarly interest in the medium that is not disconnected from the domestic industry, so they nourish each other in a healthy way.
Filmmaker: You said in your director’s statement that VR allowed you to do something that cinema could not — prevent the viewer from being a passive voyeur distanced from the event. I felt this immediately (the opposite of say, seeing a Tarantino flick where the violence is up front and not at all personal). I was painfully aware of being an active voyeur as I’m the one choosing when to turn, where to look, when to turn away. You brilliantly got around any exploitation factor by indicting us participants. (By bearing witness we’re complicit!) Could you discuss this — untapped — potential when it comes to VR?
Kim: The unique potential of the VR medium that allows the viewer to “experience,” as opposed to “view at a distance in a voyeuristic way,” is definitely something I am trying to explore. I’ve been asked repeatedly the same question, “Is VR an empathy machine?” My answer is yes! But with another question attached to it: “And what can we do with it?”
When VR is used for exploitation, especially in depicting violence, it can only create another violence against the viewer (not to mention exploiting the incidents or victims by turning them into cheap entertainment). As is the case with any new medium, the “intention” is the most important thing in utilizing VR. If VR is an empathy machine, toward what end do we want to create empathy? To me, the VR medium must help us better understand the pain (and sometimes joy) of others, not through sentimental identification, but by being there as a witness.
Filmmaker: You actually recreated the real life victim’s route the night of her murder, the places she went, and the streets she walked, right up to the moment she died. You’ve said that you wanted her to “ghost guide” the participant, and indeed, the piece does feel very spiritual. What were the specific artistic influences behind the work, though? (Often I felt like I’d wandered into a South Korea-set Hopper painting.)
Kim: Honestly, there was no room for us to think about aestheticizing the shots since we were shooting under extreme pressure, in the streets with actual brothels. We filmed pretty much everything in one night since we couldn’t afford to come back, for both financial and safety reasons. All the soldiers carrying guns shown in the film are real, and there were a lot of pimps and drug dealers harassing us. We had to be extremely careful not to get caught or get in trouble since the district is limited to U.S. soldiers, and Korean civilians are not welcome or even allowed in parts of the area.
Some viewers praised how “cinematic” the piece looked, talking about the classic mise-en-scene that resembles film noir. Well, it is the other way around. We, the contemporary film viewers, are so used to the fictional “representation” of dilapidation from watching so many noir films that we then find the look of real location “classy” and “cinematic.” But in truth, the gritty and lonesome “mise-en-scene” shown in my film is, sadly, the authentic reality that was mimicked and reproduced by innumerable films and art works.
Filmmaker: Finally, the story itself is harrowing, especially since I’d no idea these lawless “camp towns” even existed. Have things changed for the better (or worse?) since the outcry over the murder?
Kim: I first came to political awareness around this murder when I was a college student. We all took to the streets in outrage. But now, as an artist who has been haunted by the issue and the relative silence around it for the last 25 years, I feel that my job is to move and provoke people who may not have known about the murder or the camp towns.
In doing research for the film, I consulted extensively with activists, social workers, journalists and academics that are directly addressing this issue. What I then do is use VR as a way to bring greater attention to the transnational violence against Korean women. In that regard, it is important to note that Bloodless is actually the first VR film of a projected five-part series I am working on, on the issue of transnational gender violence.
The next piece in the series will be about the “Monkey House,” a detainment center where the Korean government forcefully locked up sex workers in camp towns (brothels and bars next to U.S. army base in South Korea) who were suspected of having STDs. Many women died at the facility from allergic reactions to medication, or while trying to run away. The building still exists in South Korea, completely abandoned since it doesn’t belong to either the US or the Korean government.