Kiki Sugino: On Labels, Cultural Identity, and "Magic and Loss"

Director Lim Kah Wai’s film Magic and Loss, part of the opening night double feature in the Korean American Film Festival New York (KAFFNY) that begins June 5, is a cross-cultural collaboration that is hard to describe and defies labels. And that’s the way Kiki Sugino thinks it should be. Sugino, the star and producer of Magic and Loss, says it’s difficult to describe something with one word, even when submitting films to festivals such as KAFFNY.

“Whenever I submit this film to festivals, I have to check what genre this film is,” says Sugino. “I often end up checking various things: Drama, fantasy, erotica. In a way, it’s a little nonsensical to try categorizing anything . . . As a producer, I definitely have to think about how to sell the movie in Japan. When I did this, I actually decided on selling the movie as a ‘vacation film with an erotic touch.’ Personally, I want to think of it as a dramatic film.”

KAFFNY, Magic and Loss, Kiki Sugino, Zainichi Korean, film festivals, NYC
Kiki Sugino (left) and Kim Kkobbi in Magic and Loss

With deliberate pacing and a vague storyline, Magic and Loss brings together two young women – one Japanese (Sugino), one Korean (Kim Kkobbi) – at a beautiful but mysterious resort. The two develop an easy friendship as they almost silently explore the island’s beaches and mountains. Yet there is an uncertainty that hangs over the film. The sexual tension between the two women goes unspoken. Although a sign at the inn where the women are staying reads “full,” there appear to be no other guests, and the innkeeper is seemingly the resort’s only employee. Of the sparse dialogue, much of it was improvised.

“There’s an Asian sensibility that’s present in this film where it doesn’t necessarily follow a logical thread,” says Sugino. “A lot of Western films try to follow a certain logic, a certain way of thinking, like at 35 minutes something is supposed to happen. For this film to be screening to a Western audience is something I’m very frightened and anxious about.”

KAFFNY organizers aren’t that concerned, saying the New York audience thrives on films such as Magic and Loss, which is being co-presented by Japan Society. To a certain extent the film is the embodiment of KAFFNY itself. The film festival’s co-founders, Dave Kim and Susie Lim, share Sugino’s disdain for labels and say that while KAFFNY originally began as a platform for strictly Korean film projects, it has evolved to become more international.

They chose to include Magic and Loss in this year’s lineup because the film is a multi-cultural collaboration and not because the Hiroshima-born Sugino is a Zainichi Korean, the term for a Japanese person of Korean heritage.

“I see that the director is Malaysian Chinese, there’s a Zainichi Korean Japanese actress, a Korean actress . . . I’m not saying, ‘What is this?’ I’m saying, ‘I’ve gotta see this!’” says Kim. “The mainstream media stereotype the film and don’t get into the complexity of the diversity.”

KAFFNY, Magic and Loss, Kiki Sugino, Zainichi Korean, film festivals, NYC
Kiki Sugino

Part of the film’s complexity with defining identity exists in Sugino’s personal life. Sugino’s parents are ethnic Koreans who endured hardships despite being permanent residents of Japan. Historically the majority of ethnic Koreans in Japan hid their heritage to avoid discrimination, assuming Japanese names and assimilating into Japanese culture. But the 28-year-old Sugino says Japan’s attitude toward nationals of other races has become more accepting.

“My parents had a much harder time living in Japan,” says Sugino, “but for my generation, things have definitely changed. In fact, when I tell some of my friends that my parents are Korean, I get comments like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool. You’re really lucky.’ That’s a completely different experience.”

Sugino’s parents encouraged her to be proud of and embrace her Japanese nationality and Korean heritage. Although Sugino strongly identifies with both cultures and openly calls herself a Zainichi Korean, she tries not to be overzealous about either culture.

“I’m 100% Japanese, 100% Korean, and my philosophy is to really feel like I’m a person of the world,” says Sugino. “I’m adamant about not wanting to stick to one side or feel like one thing is better than another . . . It’s important to think about your roots, to think about where you come from, but at the same time, over-thinking it or over-emphasizing could just end up, in a way, a racist issue. And that’s something I want to avoid.”

Sugino’s life philosophy spills into her career, saying, “My Korean/Japanese identity definitely affects the movies I want to make.” That includes taking on films such as Magic and Loss that cross borders and cultures and resist classification.

That fact that Magic and Loss is tough to categorize as a “Korean,” “Japanese,” or “Malaysian” film makes it all the more attractive for Lim of KAFFNY. The film “speaks to what KAFFNY represents,” says Lim. “It’s about playing with ambiguity; it’s about being inclusive.”

In an effort to be more inclusive as a festival, KAFFNY showcases films by Korean, Korean American, and non-Korean filmmakers alike, trying not to emphasize the “Korean” part of the title.

“Film festivals are a way to connect with a world audience,” says Sugino. “Film festivals create this place for various people to come in and to find new views and to discover new ways of seeing things, which is a very inherent thing in film itself. Even though the festival is called the ‘Korean American Festival,’ I want Spanish people to come; I want French people to come.”

KAAFNY runs from Tuesday, June 5 until Sunday, June 10. The opening night double feature of Should’ve Kissed and Magic and Loss will be held at Anthology Film Archives, located at 32 Second Avenue. In addition to KAFFNY’s opening night, Magic and Loss will screen at 3:00 p.m. Saturday, June 9. To purchase tickets to the opening night double feature, visit eventbrite. For the full schedule and description of films appearing at KAFFNY, visit KAFFNY’s website.