'Someone Else' Director Nelson Kim on the Fluidity of Identity
"The puzzle, or mindfuck film, if you will, is an inherently cinematic idea. Something about the very nature of cinema invites playing around with different levels of reality."
Someone ElseDirector: Nelson Kim
Cast: Aaron Yu, Leonardo Nam, Jackie Chung
Someone Else opens with a gauzy, dreamlike montage; a young Asian man sits on a train, philosophizing about his life. We don't yet know much about him, and his monologue seems more suited for the climax. All will be revealed in due time, but that's the challenge of this particular film. It's a movie that ultimately forces you to think on your feet, to re-examine your assumptions about the story, much as the grungy, feverish Bellflower did a few years back.
Our transit rider is young Jamie, played with amplifying intensity by Aaron Yu, whom you may recall as the ethereal, gay Heston in Rocket Science. Jamie's arrived in the Big Apple for a summer law internship, bunking at his buffed-out playboy cousin Will's spacious apartment. Will (the busy Korean-Australian actor Leonardo Nam) is a Dionysian slacker/dreamer, bankrolled grudgingly by his affluent father. And Jamie is sketched as his polar opposite, a prototypical Asian automaton, obsessed with pleasing the adults in his orbit, and trapped in an undesired engagement with his clingy girlfriend back home in Virginia.
Initially, Jamie is shy and tentative within Will's gregarious urban demimonde, but at some point, there's a subtle transference of status, as Jamie becomes cock-of-the-walk and Will is pushed to the sidelines. Unsurprisingly, a contest of wills ensues, and a simmering hostility emerges in Jamie's dreams.
Ostensibly, Someone Else follows a conventional linear narrative, but the unanticipated surprise during the denouement makes it also, if only temporarily, a mysterio certain to provoke discussion, and perhaps argument, amongst viewers. Ultimately, it's a treatise on identity and the fluidity of such. Brooklyn-based writer/director Nelson Kim likely knows this milieu intimately, and handles the varying emotions -- intense psychodrama to sweetly genteel romance -- with aplomb, displaying a skillful feel for intimate moments, and his copious use of closeups quickly draws us in, before delivering a bracing splash of cold water into our faces.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Nelson Kim after seeing Someone Else. What follows is an condensed excerpt of our conversation.
Someone Else does have the proverbial surprise ending, and I was reminded of the films Bellflower and Memento. Were they influences?
I've seen both of those, but neither played a direct influence. I can throw out a few other titles... Lost Highway, Raising Cain, Femme Fatale, Bergman's Persona. The puzzle, or mindfuck film, if you will, is an inherently cinematic idea. Something about the very nature of cinema invites playing around with different levels of reality. It's a huge part of the texture of our film. Part of the enjoyment is for viewers to feel their way through it, and enjoy the ride. It's like an abstract painting, and people can see whatever they want in it.
Is this your first film? Any shorts before this?
This is my first feature. I've written and directed a few shorts, that played on the festival circuit. Hopefully, there's been an artistic progression.
The two main characters, Will and Jamie, they're cousins, Korean-American, and that's significant because we don't see many Asian leads, at least from Hollywood. How are these two similar and different?
Jamie is very shy, introverted, and feels stifled by his own personality. Will represents a counterlife. It's about taking these diametrically opposed characters and putting them into play.
Jamie, it occurred to me, fits the stereotype of the Asian automaton.
In some ways, Jamie does represent the Asian stereotype, someone who excels academically, but is socially repressed. On the other hand, it's a type that a lot of people recognize from real life. I certainly know a lot of Jamies. Will is the opposite of Jamie, but also a type in many ways, just a type we don't see in American movies; an Asian-American character who is sexually bold and socially charming.
I remember Aaron Yu (“Jamie”) from a film called Rocket Science, where he played a character named “Heston”, who apparently has some sort of cult following. Tell us how he became involved in the production.
I met Aaron years ago in New York, saw him do a couple of play readings, and I was immediately struck by his talent, intelligence, and energy. So I always wanted to work with him. I knew he could carry a movie. And that was also true of Leonardo Nam. Brilliant actors! I very much wrote the script with both of them in mind.
I'm one of the very few filmmakers who actually got their dream cast. Aaron signed on, and he recruited Leonardo. The third member of the triumvirate is Jackie Chung. She's done primarily theater, and a few short films. I had no doubt she could hold her own with Aaron and Leo.
Regarding Leonardo Nam... he's had a really interesting upbringing. Tell us a little bit about his background.
Leo is of Korean descent, but he grew up in Australia, as well as Argentina, so he has this Euro-Latino-Asian background. He also cut his teeth as a young actor in New York. Now, he's based in L.A. He's usually in American movies, so you hear an American accent, but in real life he has a charming Aussie accent. That's his natural state of being.
Does Someone Else have anything specific to say about Korean-American culture?
We set out to make a Korean-American film, but it's about family dysfunction, family drama, how people deal with loss and humanity, it's about identity, very much about masculinity. But of course, it takes on a culturally-specific cast. It's more than an Asian-American film, though we're proud for it to be an Asian-American film.
You were raised in the New York area. How large is the Korean community in the greater New York area, and were there significant numbers prior to the Immigration Act of 1965?
The vast majority came after the changing of the laws in 1965. It was a very small Korean population before that. Asian-Americans in New York are a much bigger cultural presence now, than when you and I were children.
I wonder what your exposure has been to Korean cinema. I sometimes joke that Korean films are always about high school bullies or gangsters.
It was not a big part of my upbringing. My parents didn't even watch Korean soap operas. Korean cinema has been a recent discovery for me, as with most American cinephiles, through film festivals and adventurous arthouse distributors.
Are you teaching in a cinema program in New York?
I'm an adjunct professor at both Fordham and Columbia. I teach both film history and analysis, as well as screenwriting and directing. I fell into teaching by accident, but very quickly fell in love with it. It's very rewarding work for me.
What's going on with Someone Else now? I know it's been at some festivals.
As of now, the film is available on VOD, Amazon, Itunes, and DVD, through Amazon, so you can purchase the film via our website. It would be wonderful to have more people see it in theaters, but the reality is, most people will see it through video-on-demand.
What's your next project?
A script I wrote before Someone Else. It's a psychological thriller set in the business world, a sort of financial thriller-character study, set as the dot com boom goes bust, during 2001. I've described it as a sort of Asian-American Taxi Driver or Talented Mr. Ripley.