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Asia Pacific Arts talks to director Harry Kim at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, where his debut film Dirty Hands: the Life and Crimes of David Choe won a special jury prize.
Ever since its jam-packed premiere at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival (and arguably, for several years before the film was even completed), there's been a fanatic excitement surrounding Harry Kim's documentary about "a hyper-talented manically obsessed artist who punches himself in the face."
In the past several years, artist David Choe has made a name for himself in the contemporary art circuit for his explosive designs, his boldly elaborate (sometimes offensive) murals, his sold-out gallery shows, his televised adventures around the country on the online travel series Thumbs Up!, and his memorable illustrations (from Hustler drawings to the recent Obama cover for Giant Robot magazine).
Director Harry Kim has been 100% committed to this project since its inception, when the short film Whales and Orgies was just supposed to be a ten-minute thesis project, a short vignette on Choe's artwork. Nine years later, Kim has followed Choe to the Congo in search of a dinosaur, been an accomplice in multiple acts of vandalism and thievery, animated Choe's three-month stay in a Japanese prison, stalked him when he was going on the Christian path and didn't want to be filmed, and ultimately watched Choe go from a desperate, hustling graffiti artist to professional powerhouse that lands multi-million-dollar corporate commissions. No matter what happened, Kim kept shooting the chaos and kept following his subject.
At festival screenings, Kim can be found at the door, passing out Dirty Hands hand sanitizers to audience members or pimping Dirty Hands merchandise: T-shirts with Choe sketches, movie posters (a whale on the freeway tells you to ride the bus), and dry humping pillows. He's taken the documentary to festivals around the world (German audiences at the Q&A asked Choe, "Do you still want to be normal?") and collected multiple awards, including the recent San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival Special Jury Prize.
In addition to providing sometimes-unwanted, often-forced therapy sessions over the years, Kim has become Choe's unofficial Vegas money manager, to make sure Choe's over-the-top gambling addiction is profitable.
APA speaks to Harry Kim about making Dirty Hands: The Life and Crimes of David Choe.
Interview with Harry Kim
March 14, 2009
San Francisco, California
Interview by Ada Tseng
Photos of Kim by Brian Hu
Asia Pacific Arts: You've known David Choe since high school summer camp. How did you balance being his friend and being an objective documentarian?
Harry Kim: Well, one thing is that I'm not getting too much financial support from him, which adds to struggle. But that [dynamic] took some time too. We had good amount of arguments, but that was affected when we changed what we wanted to do with the doc. In 2003, when I was going to make a 30-minute vignette about his art, when the whole point of the doc was "This is the artist, and look at how cool he is," Dave was all down for that. But once I started getting personal, he was [more hesitant.]
Also, trying to sit down and have real interviews -- that was definitely something he hated. When I first started doing the interviews, I couldn't ask the questions. Cause it's stuff I already know. I'm his friend, and I had to ask him, "Well, can you explain?" and he'd be like, "Fuck! You don't remember what happened in the Congo?" [laughs] So I had to get someone else to ask the questions. I mean, he could pretend it's not me, but why should he have to pretend? I can just bring someone else in.
But the other part is that he doesn't want this movie to be that personal. He really didn't watch the movie for a long time, even after it premiered in theaters. He just saw it about a month ago in his parents' living room. I figured we could do the audio commentary.
APA: You guys did the audio commentary with his parents, while he was watching it for the first time?
HK: [laughs] Yea. He was giving me a lot of shit, like "Why are you putting my life on the screen?" And his parents were there.
APA: Did his parents know about a lot of the stuff he did, before seeing the documentary? Or was this the first time they were finding out?
HK: Um, do you have Korean friends? Korean parents are really good at the art of denial. I think a lot of East Asian parents are good at that. So Dave's mom is like, "It's up to him [points upwards]. The guy upstairs. Dave only has to answer to him." Which means: I didn't see it, and I don't know what's going on. [laughs]
APA: In the documentary, you can tell that sometimes Dave or others are being recorded without their knowledge. How did you get away with that?
HK: That was the thing, I was trying to get Dave used to me always being around with a camera. I wasn't always able to get what I wanted. So I had to do the whole stealth thing. And in the end, I knew he would understand, which I think he ended up understanding.
APA: Was he not understanding at first?
HK: Well, he didn't want it to get as personal as it did. Because his life becomes sort of like a Woody Allen movie. [laughs] But in the end, yea. Because Dave respects when you get content or art, no matter how you get it. He respects that a lot. And I knew that he would expect that. Because I mean, he steals. So if you can get it, you can get it. But the unspoken rule is that you have to get over this hump. Which is: I don't want you to do it. So I figured, shoot it and in the end he'd understand.
APA: But even though he understood, I noticed his girlfriend isn't really in the movie that much. But even though you don't see her, you can always feel her presence. Did you know that you needed that aspect of his life in the film?
HK: Yea, she's a very private person, so I had to be discreet about that. It was tough. I would rather not have her in it, because she didn't want to be in the film. But the only reason I knew I needed it was because she was such a big part of his life. If you're in Dave's life, you have to be in the movie. There's no way things would make sense... If someone was documenting any person, and something was a big part of their life, and you took it out, then there would be something missing. So it was definitely important. He comes back from Japan -- comes back from jail -- he talks about her.
APA: What was Dave's reaction after he finished watching the film?
HK: What are they... denial, anger, acceptance?
APA: Five stages of grief?
HK: [laughs] I don't know. It's a big bag of emotions for Dave. And you know, maybe he picked up some of that denial from his parents. "I don't want to see it, I don't want to see it..."
APA: Did you guys ever come to blows over anything?
HK: Yea, when he came out of prison in Japan, he wanted to disappear. He didn't know what he was going to do or how he was going to deal with his new life as a Christian, and he just wanted a lot of time to himself. But I heard from somebody from somebody else from somebody else that he was out, and he was in San Jose somewhere. And he didn't call me and didn't want me to be there, but I drove there overnight, looked for him, and found him. And he was really unhappy to see me. He was punching me, yelling at me. He was really angry. But then he got over it, and we ended up talking about Japan. I had to get him to tell me the story.
He didn't like a lot of it. He must be happy that it's over. But he's also probably unhappy that everyone's going to go watch it. [laughs]
APA: One of the overarching themes of the film is about his recklessness and how it fuels his art. There the struggle of: if I lose my recklessness and make my mental state healthier, will I lose this side of me that drives my art? As someone who's been watching him over the years, do you think there's a necessary connection between his recklessness and his art?
HK: Yea. Art is probably one of the few places he can bring out the beast. He's got a real untamed beast inside. And when you're out in society, you get put in jail. When you're gambling, you can lose all your money. In art, you can just throw it all on a canvas. So when he's trying to manage that in every other aspect of his life, it's a mess. But when he's doing the art, people will like it.
APA: Was there anything that surprised you about his process? Watching him create his art?
HK: He gets ideas, he gets obsessions, but also he's impulsive. It's hard to say, because he throws everything into it. And it's in the doc, where he says he'll work a long time on one piece, and says Fuck it, goes right over it and does something else. That's the thing. It takes a lot of guts to do what he does. Him and his friend were hired to do a mural at some sportswear convention, and they were working on it for a few days. Then he says "fuck it," and just takes some black spray paint and does this crude caveman painting of a guy getting fisted by some other guy. Just right over the whole thing. So people at the sports convention have to look at this thing. And another example of that is in the documentary too, with the Facebook guy. There's a lot of awkward spaces. He told Dave that he could do whatever he wanted. And in Dave's head, that means exactly that: I can do what I want.
APA: It seemed like there were a lot of locations. Where did you guys go?
HK: We went to the Congo. Across the US both ways. New York. Bay Area. That's why it consumed my life. He's living his life, but I'm not living my life, I'm living his life too. It's terrible [laughs].
I just kept taking out these credit card loans. Every dollar I had, I'd throw into it. Every loan I had, I'd throw into it. I couldn't do anything stable. I couldn't hold down a job. I had to follow him. So you know, I had a lot of fights with my girlfriend because I needed to jet set. But whenever he was going somewhere, he tried to figure out how I could make it there with him too.
APA: Did you ever have any doubts during the filming. As you say, it took seven years to shoot, your subject was getting contentious, you're not necessarily making any money, you're going into debt, you're following a subject that's mad at you. Did you ever have any doubt about how this documentary was going to come together?
HK: No, not at all actually. I didn't know exactly how it was going to come together, but I knew that it was going to be a pretty good documentary. I was just working on my way there. Also, maybe another part of it is that when you're in too deep, you have to get to the other side. It's like when you're swimming in a tunnel underwater. You can't stop.
I had a lot of footage. There were a lot of stories there -- it was just a matter of making it work. A lot of people didn't see it though. They'd be like, "Your movie sucks, Harry. It's taking you forever." My parents were like, "What are you doing with your life?" People were like, "You're never going to finish the movie."
APA: He's so erratic and all over the place. Were there ever moments where he would do something, and you were afraid that this is what the documentary would end on?
HK: No, I knew that whatever happens happens. I just had to follow it. The movie could have gone in many directions. If we found the dinosaur in the Congo, fuck Dave's life, we found the fucking living dinosaur. I'm selling this $5 million footage to someone else; this is a whole different documentary. So if he went on the straight Christian path, he said he'd go in a Christian van, go to the Middle East and paint a big cross on the wall. It'd be a lot more Christian-oriented -- how he got there and where he's going. It would have been a different doc, but it still would have had that [journey].
This thing had a life of its own. And the thing with Dave too, you kind of get swept up. Because he loves being an escapist. A lot of people get swept up with Dave.
Date Posted: 4/17/2009