November Student Spotlight: Michelle Jihyon Kim

This month, we’re featuring IRIS IN student Michelle Jihyon Kim. Michelle is a filmmaker and painter who is currently studying Art at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has been able to create and work on several short films through Ghetto Film School, including the program’s Tel Aviv-based thesis film Charley Horse. Since completing the program, she has gone on to intern at Karga Seven Pictures and A24. When she’s not working on her films, Michelle is busy co-heading the Hammer Museum’s student publication GRAPHITE Journal. Lately, she’s been working on writing her first feature and a series of paintings that investigate the uncanniness of West Los Angeles.

As part of our monthly Student Spotlight series, Michelle told us about her what drives her to make films and other art:

Can you recount the moment when you realized you wanted to become a filmmaker?

I remember watching Dear Zachary in early high school and it devastated me in a way I have never felt before. It sparked this hope in me that video can be an irrevocably moving and impactful mode of artmaking. But it wasn’t until several years later when I watched Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love that I realized films can be treated like art. That an intersection between film and art existed. Watching Dear Zacharyignited my curiosity, and In the Mood for Love really got the gears turning in my brain.

What draws you to film as a medium of art? Are there other mediums that you gravitate towards?

I love that I can not only compose so much in a single frame, but also have that image move and unfold. Film is such a dynamic medium, especially in the sense that it’s reliant on so many factors to make it work (how strong the story is, how developed the characters are, technicality, thematic approach). In regard to the challenge that presents, I treat my work like a puzzle, where I try to fit all of these separate ideas together and not only to make them work but make them work well. I like the problem-solving aspect of filmmaking, especially on-set or when I’m writing. I think it keeps my brain from rotting.

Do these other art forms come into play and/or inspire your film projects?

There is definitely an intersection between my filmmaking and my painting. Sometimes I make a painting that I want to make a frame in a future film or a frame that could inform a painting. Other times, it’s less literal and I like to explore certain themes and how they translate between the two media. A constant conversation is occurring between my works in painting and film, and I try to cultivate it as much as I can.

What impression do you want to make on audiences with your films?

I really do focus on how my work can build certain expectations and how I could disrupt them. I have this personal belief that the audience secretly wants all of their expectations to be broken, which is why plot twists are so popular and so often referenced.

How has your personal background affected your film perspective?

From a very young age, I had instilled in me the belief that I would have to work my ass off if I wanted to be good at what I love and enjoy success from it. I grew up going to afterschool programs with other Korean kids who had very high-strung parents and with teachers who expected all of us to pursue lucrative fields. So, there was already that high work ethic expectation set in place. But I just wanted to direct it towards drawing and telling crazy stories all the time.

Later in high school, I received even more pushback in my endeavors. I think this constant disappointment that weighed on me just drove me more – partially to prove everyone wrong – but mostly to see if I could actually even pursue my dreams. Now when I work on films, I recognize how much of a privilege it is to be able to come onto set and work all day trying to make art. To be in such an intense environment, where every single decision needs to be worked through with a team, is so, so special.

Are there any specific filmmakers or films that have left a lasting impression on you?

Oh boy. As I mentioned before, watching Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love was what caused the first spark. But after I watched Boogie Nights, I realized I was in love with the craft. On the first day of Ghetto Film School, we watched Do The Right Thing and it paralyzed me. The experiences I’ve had from watching all of these films left me shell-shocked in such different ways and it made me consider that there really is no limit with films.

Other films that have completely blown my mind include Lady Vengeance, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Jackie Brown, and The Piano Teacher.

If you could right one wrong in the industry, what would it be?

Motion smoothing. Or American remakes of Korean films.

What are your thoughts on the future of film and digital storytelling?

Thinking about the future of film scares me. The rise of digital streaming and independently produced cinema is causing a divergence away from the Hollywood pipeline where you could only get your movie made and seen if you begged a company to finance it. While the pipeline is suffocating, it still brought this strange, ironic reassurance: that if you just broke your back PA’ing for a couple years, then you’d get a shot at being behind the camera.

But, the rise of digital storytelling also means there are way more creators and writers than ever before, which is so incredible. I hope for an industry where we can assess films through their ability to prod and stretch limitation as opposed to the traditional prioritization of nepotism and formulaic plot structures – not only for marginalized people’s voices to be heard but to be respected as well.

When you applied for Iris-In, you submitted an impressive video that gave us a glimpse into your background, but in doing so, the video seemed to paint a specific picture of your hometown, Los Angeles. Can you explain your reasoning and process for putting it together?

I created TRASH PRIUS during a NYU residency with the intention of making it as nostalgic yet bittersweet as I could. At the time, I had just graduated high school and was still processing everything. For the most part, I didn’t have many friends, so I was just really obsessed with the internet. It wasn’t until senior year that I made friends outside of school and started interning at MOCA. Looking back on it, I think a lot of TRASH PRIUS was about how I handled my insecurities and the sheer anxiety of navigating these wildly different social environments.

What inspired you to have your classmate, Julia “play” you in the end?

In regard to the credits, there was a long-running joke in my Ghetto Film School class that my colleague Julia and I are the same person because we were the only Asian people in our class. I thought it’d be perfect to have her finish the short, because I felt like she was as much of a reflection of my identity to others as much as the animations and the footage I used.

Watch TRASH PRIUS here.