By Michael Aushenker
At a time when Hollywood is obsessed with cynical remakes, mega-expensive super hero epics, and generic, computer-animated crowd-pleasers, Kelly Sun Kim is training her camera on nocturnal kayakers, prancing cave-dwellers and symbolic death rattles.
“I love narrative storytelling but I want to know my limit,” she told The Argonaut. “I want to try to find my voice. I want to push the boundary and break the conventional language. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like traditional narrative.”
Billing herself as an “interdisciplinary artist,” the Mar Vista resident has worked in video, film, experimental documentary, installation and performance “in order to investigate the force of the unconscious in everyday life,” according to her official bio.
Kim, who emigrated to the Los Angeles area from Korea, earned her master of fine arts degree in film/video studies from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Her thesis film, “Uncertainty Principle,” premiered as an official entry in the short film competition at the 2013 Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Shot in a mixed media of 16-millimeter, Super 8, HD and mobile phone cameras, “Uncertainty Principle” collages a barrage of shots of random events into one 17-minute, quasi-linear flow that, as she puts it, is tantamount to evoking “a strange psychological space.” The film is a fierce fury of formats and silhouettes of strangers kayaking, cavorting on Malibu’s beaches at night, and twirling fire brands, and Kim closets her theme of “traveling through a labyrinth called the present” under some stark imagery.
Driving Kim’s art – which has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Orange County Museum of Art, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, the Torrance Art Museum, and the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
She matriculated into UC-Irvine, and until she arrived in Irvine less than a decade ago, the lifelong city girl had never even seen the countryside.
During her three year program at Cal Arts, “I wanted to focus on my experience in L.A.,” Kim said. “Without serious thinking, I took my camera and went all around L.A.”
Like this self-assigned directive, the sketchbooks she kept were exceedingly simple.
“Sometimes I’ll write one sentence,” she said. “Sometimes just a word or an image – ‘air,’ ‘fire,’ ‘face.’”
The takeaway from all of her artistic exploring was the spontaneity: “I like sincere moments from my experience,” she says.
She incorporated such moments into her thesis film. The young woman who collapses with a bowl of red paint at the opening of “Uncertainty Principle” has its roots in one of the UCI performance art pieces she staged in 2005, a tense point in post 9/11 America. She was that woman.
“I ran (into the gallery) and fell, and dropped the bowl,” she said. “The red paint splashed all over the floor.”
At the time, Kim commented on a “fear of media,” and a general distrust of what was being reported by the mainstream media. As a foreigner living in the U.S. and as a person studying at multicultural UCI, she says she felt particularly attune to the way certain cultures were being profiled in post-9/11 America. Her bewildered reaction was, “I know these people. They’re my friends.”
While filming “Uncertainty,” a friend in Malibu introduced her to El Matador, where a yawning cave cornered by crashing waves at the exotic, Mediterranean-looking beach became one of the singular images from her piece. When two kids just showed up during filming, she incorporated them into her film.
Created with an extensive production and post-production crew and even the help of the Lake Castaic Kayak Club, Kim said the fallen woman scene that kick-starts her film “becomes a different meaning. It’s been eight years. For me, I wanted to make a connection back to my past (as an artist).”
That said, returning to her performance-art roots right now is not her favorite option.
“I don’t want to go back to my past,” she said. “For me, I try different mediums, different genres. I want to keep pushing my boundaries, in terms of structure and medium.”
Kim, who grew up watching films from the French and Italian New Wave movements, is not one of those cinemaphiles looking forward to the next summer tentpole. She connects with the offbeat, often dark and brooding films of David Lynch, including “Eraserhead,” “The Elephant Man,” and “Blue Velvet.” She added that pioneer independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who often casts his films with international actors, is another creator whose work she enjoys. In recent years, she has also admired the work of Chang Dong Lee, a Korean novelist-turned-filmmaker who became successful in both mediums.
One certainty about “Uncertainty” is Kim’s dismissal of the cookie-cutter formula paint-by-number that some Hollywood scripts require. But that doesn’t mean she has dispensed with structure. In fact, she made sure to fit her random images into a loose narrative thread.
“In terms of the structure, I wanted to push the boundary,” she said. “Not traditional structure, but a structure.”
Since April, Kim has called Mar Vista home.
“I love the diversity,” she said, noting the community borders on downtown Culver City, where she enjoys the restaurants, art scene and nightlife. When she’s not creating her art, Kim enjoys taking in live music, galleries and museums, street happenings, or walking.
She also enjoys Mar Vista’s proximity to the beach: “I feel the ocean’s energy there even though it’s not really by the ocean.”
“That feeling of outsider is not uncomfortable all the time,” she said. “I’m an artist, I can travel anywhere. I love to meet new people. That always inspires me.”
Beyond L.A., Kim draws inspiration from her travels, be it international (Paris, London, Australia) or across California.
The filmmaker, who is in the process of seeking ideal subject matter, will next embark on creating her first feature-length documentary.
Strange to some, but Kim says she feels at peace with her lack of peace in this world.
When Kim titled her thesis film “Uncertainty Principle,” she did not see it as pejorative.
“There’s nothing wrong with uncertainty,” Kim said. “How can everything have an answer?”
Filmmaker feeling her way through ‘uncertainty’: Mar Vista resident Kelly Sun Kim has taken experimental films from Los Angeles to Edinburgh
By Michael Aushenker