Crossing Borders: A Conversation with Actress and Producer Kiki Sugino, of MAGIC AND LOSS


One of the best offerings of the 6th annual Korean American Film Festival New York (KAFFNY) is Lim Kah Wai's Magic and Loss, a vacation island mystery that is a global-village production - by a Malaysian director, set in Hong Kong, with Korean and Japanese actors. (Read my review in my KAFFNY preview). 

Besides its director, another major creative force behind this film is its co-lead actress and producer Kiki Sugino. Sugino was born in 1984 in Hiroshima, Japan to Korean parents (Japanese-born Koreans are known in Japan as "Zainichi Koreans."). She made her debut as an actress in Korea in the 2005 film One Shining Day, an anthology film about Korea-Japan relations. Subsequently, Kim Ki-duk cast her in a small role in his 2006 film Time. Sugino later returned to Japan where she made her acting debut in that country with Tetsuo Shinohara's 2008 film Clearness. In the past two years or so, Sugino has gone beyond being only a performer, and has become a producer, starting her own company Wa Entertainment and producing her most recent films. Besides Magic and Loss, Sugino has also produced and starred in Tokyo-based Malaysian director Edmund Yeo's short film Exhalation and Koji Fukada's feature Hospitalité, both 2010 films. Her slate is quite full these days, with a number of upcoming releases and other projects in development. One that looks especially intriguing is her upcoming film Odayaka (Calm Daily Life), which deals with the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, directed by Nobuteru Uchida (Love Addiction).

I sat down with Ms. Sugino last week to talk with her about Magic and Loss, as well as her other films. It was a great conversation, and I came away quite impressed with the way her answers revealed a great intellectual curiosity and seemingly boundless creativity, as well as the beautifully articulated philosophy behind her work.

Besides thanking Ms. Sugino for taking the time to speak with me, I'd also like to thank Brian Geldin and Thessa Mooij of Silversalt PR, at whose offices we had our interview, for allowing us the time necessary for an in depth conversation. I'd especially like to thank Aiko Masubuchi for her great translation work, in which Ms. Sugino's eloquent responses to my queries fully came through.

Twitch: Magic and Loss is a multi-national, multi-language production, with seven different countries involved in one way or another. Could you walk us through how it all came together?

Kiki Sugino: I met [director Lim Kah Wai] at Busan [International Film Festival] in 2009, where I saw his film After All These Years, which I felt was very influenced by his background, and his own sensibility was very apparent in this film. When I met him, we talked about doing something together. One day we went to see a film by Jacques Rozier called Du Cote D'Orouët [Near Orouët], which was a vacation film. After we saw it, we thought, we've never seen an Asian vacation film made by a collaborative Asian cast or crew. So we decided maybe this is something we'd like to do.

The Mui Wo island setting of Magic and Loss is such an integral part of the film that it becomes another character. How did you come upon the idea of placing the story here?

We decided we wanted to do this vacation film after seeing the French one, and we thought maybe two or three women should be in our movie. After All These Years screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and when Lim Kah Wai was there, he ended up going to this island, and that was when he thought this might be a good location to do this vacation film. It has a very eerie atmosphere that works well with what we might want to do. He brought back pictures to show me, and I said, oh, this would be interesting.

And just to clarify the geography, how far is Mui Wo from Hong Kong?

It's 30-40 minutes by ferry from Hong Kong, but it's actually the same place Hong Kong's airport is located.

At what point did the other two actors, Kim Kkobbi and Yang Ik-june, become involved? One of the most interesting aspects of Magic and Loss is that it represents a reunion of the co-leads of the 2008 Korean film Breathless (directed by Yang), here playing very different characters than in that earlier film.

I knew Ik-june from the first film I ever worked on, which was One Shining Day. He played someone who bullied my character in that movie, so I've known him since 2005. I met Kkobbi at Busan in 2009, and I actually didn't recognize her as the actress in Breathless when we first met. But we knew of each other, so after we met, we started getting to know each other. So when I was trying to decide who to have as the other actress in Magic and Loss, Kkobbi's face popped up in my mind, and I called her over. And that was when I decided that it'd be interesting to have Ik-june as part of the film, because he's the thread that ties us two actresses together. So I called him up and said, "Want to go on vacation with us?" (Laughs)

I understand that there was a lot of improvisation in this film. Did you have a script or any kind of outline before you began shooting?

We did not have a script when we started making the film. We only had a 20-page treatment where some specifics were decided, for example, it would take this many days for them to meet or this many days for things to happen. And there would definitely be this switch in identity, or souls, almost. But the dialog was improvised by acclimating ourselves to this eerie environment, and trying to play along with what this environment brought about.

How did all three of you come up with the characters and personalities you portrayed? Did you have rehearsals before shooting, or did you work it out on camera? 

The decisions about the characters and their backgrounds were already made before we started making the movie. We decided there would be this yin-yang relationship, where my character was more the girly girl, as opposed to Kkobbi, who had a darker side to her. So all that was something we'd already thought of beforehand.

You mentioned the switching of identities, which brought to my mind Ingmar Bergman's Persona, which Magic and Loss often reminded me powerfully of, in the sense that both films involve women whose identities switch, or perhaps merge into one. You talked about Jacques Rozier's film earlier, so I'm wondering if there were any other cinematic references you all drew upon.

I've actually never seen Persona, but the director and I have referenced and been talking about Robert Altman's 3 Women, and also Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating. There was never this feeling of wanting to imitate these two films, but the story I wanted to create was the idea of starting from one person that splits off into two, and then comes back into one person.

I find it very interesting that you've referenced Rozier and Rivette, so there's definitely a French New Wave influence at work here, as well as 1970's New Hollywood cinema, represented by Altman.

Have you ever worked in this improvisational way before, and did this present any challenges to you in terms of performance?

This movie Magic and Loss is the first time I've ever done improvising, but as part of the Osaka International Film Festival, there was a project with the Korean director Lim Tai-hyung, where the project was to make one film in one day. So that was pretty much all improvised. It was called Two Rabbits in Osaka, and it was a sci-fi movie about a Japanese woman and a Korean man who fall in love. The director just gave me certain pointers, such as "Please sing," and other various things, but everything else was all improvised. 

In terms of difficulties doing improvisation, I actually thought it was more fun than difficult, especially because you never know what's going to happen on set. I feel that this idea of splitting documentary and fiction is almost nonsensical, and this improvisation idea blends the two together. John Cassavetes for example used a lot of improvisation; I feel some films work better when they're improvised, some may not. The new film I made with Nobuteru Uchida, Odayaka, actually had a 100-page script, it was a very long script. However, once we were on set, I was told to forget everything about the script, and was told to just act and improvise after having really felt what the character was about after reading the script.

I've noticed a common trait among the characters I've seen you play in Magic and Loss and in other films. These women all have some mysterious aspect to them and secrets they hide from others.  For example, Natsuki in Hospitalité has a past she is concealing from her husband; similarly, Naoko in Exhalation doesn't tell her sister what her profession is in Tokyo. What is it that draws you to these kinds of roles?

I do realize that a lot of the parts I play do tend to have something hidden. In the first film I worked on in Korea, One Shining Day, I was a person who was hiding the fact that I was a Zainichi Korean. And in my first film in Japan, Clearness, I was hiding the fact that I was prostituting. I didn't want to become an actress who was known to do these very specific characters, so in this new film Odayaka I'm a very effusive character who's very emotional, and shows everything visibly.

If I may, I'd like to backtrack and ask about how you got started acting in the first place. You were born in Hiroshima, Japan, but you made your debut in Korea. Why did you start your career there instead of in Japan?

Even though I have lived both as a Japanese person and a Korean person when I was in Japan, I had never been able to speak Korean. When I saw the movies by people like Kim Ki-duk or Lee Chang-dong, I realized just how high the level of mastery in film was in Korea, and those were the films that I wanted to work in. But I was very frustrated that I couldn't understand what they were saying. So when I was 21, I decided to go study abroad in Korea and learn the language. Just coincidentally, I heard about an audition in Korea, and got the part. I actually did consider staying in Korea to continue my acting, but because I had taken a break from college, I wanted to finish my studies, and that's when I decided to move back to Japan.

You mentioned Kim Ki-duk, and in fact you did have the opportunity to work with him on the film Time. I'm personally a great admirer of Kim Ki-duk's films, so I'm very curious about what your experience was on that film. What was he like as a director?

I met Kim Ki-duk at Busan. Again. (Laughs)

Wow, Busan seems to be where you meet everyone! (Kiki laughs.) It is a great place for that.

Well, One Shining Day was screening there, and I met Kim Ki-duk a couple of times after that, and I explained to him about my background. When he was making the film Time, he offered me a small part, and asked me whether I was interested in working with him. Judging by his movies, I had always seen Kim Ki-duk as maybe a hard person, or a person who maybe had some difficulties in his life. But after working with him, I realized that he's very pure, and almost innocent, almost like a farmer's boy in his attitude. I felt that maybe it's because of this pureness in him that he might get hurt by reality often. I definitely feel that his attitude toward film, of wanting to incorporate his own life stories, his original stories into his work, is something that has influenced me. I actually am hoping to direct one day as well, and I'm prepping myself for that, and in doing so, I feel a very big influence from Kim Ki-duk.

Besides being an actress, you are also a producer. So how did you embark on that path? Was it to have more control over your roles, to actually be able to create parts for yourself as opposed to just sitting by the phone waiting for people to call you?

After coming back to Japan from Korea, when I joined an agency, I realized that in Japan as an actress, it's a lot of waiting - waiting for offers to come, waiting for projects to appear. And I was getting frustrated by the fact that there was so much waiting. I feel that actors and actresses are creators as well, and I too wanted to create and project these things that I feel. I could have waited for projects to come, and things would have come along, but I may not be able to find films, or the films that I really love may not actually end up in my plate. Because I love films in general, I wanted to do something creative and be able to work with characters that I feel personally invested in.

You're also known for working almost exclusively in independent productions. In fact, last year the Tokyo International Film Festival, in their section devoted to your work, termed you "The Muse of the Asian Indie Cinema." And my personal feeling is that both in Japan and Korea, the independent sector is where the truly creative and most interesting work is happening. How important is it to you to be involved with independent films?

I actually dislike the distinction that's made between independent and major films. Even independent films have sponsors, and I feel it's almost rude to these sponsors to claim to be independent; it almost feels like it's diminishing the idea that they're sponsoring. I'm currently talking about making another movie with Koji Fukada; that could possibly be an independent film, or it could be a major studio film. I don't feel like I need to be in this independent scene, but I do feel that the way it is now in Japan, if you try to commercialize a film, you do lose this sense of originality or this sense of authorship. For that I feel that maybe independent is a little better. But if you make a good film, people are going to come to it, and it's not necessarily about being independent.

One very important aspect about you and the films that you do is the fact that you're always working with people of different nationalities and ethnicities. Even though it's changing a lot, both Japan and Korea are for the most part still very homogeneous societies. And I think both your very identity and the work that you do challenges that. Hospitalité, for example, explicitly satirizes the sort of xenophobic attitude that exists in Japan. The fact that you do work with people from different backgrounds give a real richness to your films. Could you talk a little about how this idea of multicultural interaction informs your work?

When I went to study abroad in Korea, I actually was rejected there; they told me, well, I'm not Korean, even though all my life I've lived both as a Korean and a Japanese person. From that experience, I knew that I didn't want to be just one nationality, but I wanted to be a person of Japan, a person of Korea, a person of the world, a person of Asia, a person that crosses many borders. And that's my attitude towards moviemaking and acting. I started a company called Wa Entertainment, and the company line is to project cultures across borders. And I feel that is the philosophy behind what I do. Even though I can't not think about the Japanese market, I also feel that it's very important to make films that go beyond the Japanese market, that go beyond into the world. What a film has to do is to really cross these borders, and touch people around the world. So I hope to continue doing projects with other countries. 

Could you talk about some of your future projects, for example your new film with Fukada?

I actually have three projects in the works with Fukada, and one that I feel would be the first one that gets made is a vacation film in the style of Rohmer. And there's a second project, "The Girl with No Hands," which is a tale that's told in various countries - there's one in Japan, there's one in France - about a stepmother who hates her daughter, and due to that the father cuts off the daughter's arms. So I'm at work playing with that idea. And the third is a human comedy set in Paris inspired by Balzac. 

I'm hearing a lot of French influences here - Balzac, Rohmer, Rivette, lots of French New Wave, so that's very fascinating. And you mentioned earlier that you want to direct something yourself, and I understand you're currently working on the script for that. Could you talk a little about that?

I actually have four projects in mind. I want to do something working with Korea and Japan, where a girl who's lost her memory goes to an island, and she meets a man, and through that she rediscovers her voice, her language, and her memories. My second one is more like a hardcore love story kind of topic. A third project I have in mind, because I'm from Hiroshima, I want to do something that would connect the nuclear disasters that are happening today, and of course the one that happened in Hiroshima. And then the fourth one is an adaptation of a book about sisters, and the premise of the book is that these sisters, even though they're related, even these two people have trouble understanding each other.


Magic and Loss screens June 5, 9pm and June 9, 3pm at Anthology Film Archives. Jo Keita, the music composer and sound designer of Magic and Loss, who is also Kiki Sugino's younger brother, will introduce the June 5 screening. For more information on the film and how to purchase tickets, visit KAFFNY's website.

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