(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)
I 'm at a disadvantage not having seen your film. Can you walk me through Never Forever?
Basically, Sophie is a Caucasian woman who's married to a Korean-American, a very successful lawyer, and they have everything but a child. They can't conceive a child because of Andrew --he's her husband-- his father dies and he goes into a deep depression. In a desperate attempt to save their marriage, Sophie starts a very dangerous sexual relationship with this poor immigrant guy whose name is Jihah. He's just literally arrived from Korea; he doesn't speak very good English, doesn't have any money, all he has, basically is his healthy body. So it basically that he's selling his sperm. They have sex, and Sophie pays him $300 each time, and any kind of personal or intimate feelings are completely forbidden because it's a transaction more than anything else. As time goes by, Sophie starts to get attached and starts to have doubts about her marriage. And when she finds herself pregnant, their relationship make a very unexpected turn. And I probably shouldn't be talking too much about that.
The themes of this film are an extension, in a way, of those in your previous films: female identity, women's issues, women's sexuality. To what degree do you revisit those here, and what else are you interested in adding to those in Never Forever?
Basically, in all of my films -- my video art, my painting, my installations -- woman's desire was at the center of all of my artwork. This film is not an exception, although it has a very strong genre template because it's a melodrama. That's how I wanted it to be, because I really wanted to make it accessible for a general audience, and approachable. But what I really wanted to achieve in this film as far as female body and woman's desire was that I really wanted to make a very complex, even self-contradictory female character. I really wanted to come up with that sort of character in my film -- which is really hard to find in films these days, for some reason.
In order to achieve that, I had to put multiple layers of ironies on Sophie's body; for example, self-sacrifice becomes self-fulfillment. That's what happens in this movie: a mother becomes a whore; her body becomes language; she never talks but for some reason, through her body language -- through this very non-metaphysical, non-spiritual relationship -- she finds her true self. Everything is kind of like the opposite of what happens in a very conventional romantic comedy. I just basically wanted to come up with this very strong female character who was full of irony and complexity -- just like male characters in great films.
There's also a strong sense of geography that threads your films. What was it about New York in this case: was it more thematic, more practical, maybe both?
Well, I don't know if I should be telling you this, but when I first wrote this story, it was set in Boston because I teach at Harvard. The city of Boston inspired me a lot because it's predominantly white, actually, and there aren't many Asians around there, especially at Harvard; it's a predominantly white male society. So I felt very isolated in a very strange way, because I didn't mind it, but I was more aware of my race and my nationality than ever. There was this small Chinatown in Boston that inspired me greatly, and that's how I came up with this first draft. But when I came to New York to develop it further, I realized that New York is actually more interesting because it’s a big metropolitan city and I thought that it would be even more edgy and more interesting and disturbing if Sophie lived in Westchester or Forest Hills or some wealthy suburb, but she works in Chinatown -- this filthy, dirty, not-glamorous-at-all part of the city, but at the same time full of life. I really wanted to juxtapose those two colliding classes which we see every day, especially in Manhattan. I just find it absolutely fascinating.
So Sophie and Jihah, they don't live in the same world at all, but their worlds somehow overlaps through this laundromat, through this dry cleaners, through these small streets of Chinatown. Here's this communication going on between the two of them; they exchange glances. I thought that it was sexy. New York is a sexy city.
Vera Farmiga is having a career year, but it's more than just chops -- it's also her versatility. What appealed to you so when you cast her?
I have to say the standard answer, but it's true: I saw her in Down to the Bone, and I thought she was absolutely phenomenal. There are a lot of good actors and actresses around, but what I was looking for from my main actor was for her to become Sophie -- not act like Sophie. It's a very tall order to ask of your actor, but Vera pulled it off in Down to the Bone. And in order to make sure, I saw a lot of Vera's other small films, and she was just amazing because she was so different in every single one of them. I couldn't even recognize her. And I knew Vera was the one. I didn't think of anybody else. When I met Vera in person, we immediately clicked, and she thought it was funny I was actually Korean-American instead of a Caucasian woman because she thought I'd be a Caucasian woman married to a Korean-American guy, but of course, that's not true.
Also, when I saw her for the first time, the immediate impression I got of her with this amazing quality that she's very mysterious, but at the same time very transparent. She has this amazing, expressive face that is almost like a map of emotions on which you can travel -- you can explore her heart. It's not the most comfortable face in the world to look at because there's so much going on on her face all the time. It doesn't make you feel comfortable -- but in the best way. And her body language was just phenomenal, because she's very meticulous, and she's obsessed with the gestures of Sophie: the way she walks, the way she touches her hair, the way she zips up her skirt. Everything was very meticulously planned, because an actor's body should create some sort of emotional landscape in the cinematic frame. There are very few actors who can do that, and Vera is one of the few -- probably one of the best actors who can pull that off.
You've taken previous work to a ton of festivals, but this is your first Sundance appearance, and with a competition feature at that. What's your sense of this moment?
I've never been to Sundance, strangely enough. I'm just so looking forward to it, honestly, because there's this issue of race and this issue of class, and the issue of American-ness, Korean, Korean-American -- everything is really melting into this very conventional but hopefully subversive and disturbing melodrama. And I hear a lot about the Sundance audience; that they are one of the most intelligent audiences in the world, and I'm so interested in seeing how they react to this explicit love between a Caucasian woman and an Asian man because we don't see that very often. In fact, we never see that; the only one I can think of is Hiroshima, Mon Amour.
That and maybe The Lover are pretty much it.
It's true, but that's a period piece. There haven't been many of them that are in-your-face: It's contemporary, it's New York and Sophie is just like everybody else. So I'm just looking forward to seeing how the audience reacts to that.
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