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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 26, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 09
Josh Kim interview - How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)
Arts & Entertainment
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Josh Kim interview - How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

HOW TO WIN AT CHECKERS
(EVERY TIME)
DVD release


Josh Kim is an upcoming Korean-American filmmaker who is most known here in the U.S. for his striking, powerfully emotional documentary short Draft Day. The 2013 effort chronicled two 21-year-old transgender women as they are forced to partake in the country's military draft where the drawing of a black card grants exemption and red results in two years of service in the armed forces. It's gut-wrenching, heartbreaking stuff, Kim showing a gift for getting right to the point as he breathlessly examines this heartless system in all its ugly insensitive depravity.

For his first narrative feature, Kim returns to Thailand to look at the country's draft lottery once again, this time through the eyes of a thoughtful, sensitive 11-year-old boy, portrayed with eloquent complexity by Ingkarat Damrongsakkul. The film is How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), and its power comes in its simplicity, the filmmaker deftly adapting two of revered author Rattawut Lapcharoensap's stories into one concise, intimately austere script that builds in complexity and power as it moves towards its powerfully striking conclusion.

Released on DVD last week, I had the pleasure of engaging in a brief email back-and-forth with the filmmaker to talk about his film, the state of LGBT cinema and what he plans to do next. Here are some of the highlights from that conversation:



Sara Michelle Fetters: Talk to me about Rattawut Lapcharoensap. What drew you to him? Why these two stories?

Josh Kim: I first heard about the short story collection when he did an interview on NPR. Even though the stories were set in another country, I felt that the characters were people I knew, my brother, my neighbors, my friends, etc. So I bought the book and I remember reading one of the stories called 'At the Cafe Lovely.' Rattawut wrote it in such a visual way that it felt like I had just watched a movie. It was almost as if I had licked the colors off a filmstrip. After I put the book down I picked up the phone and called the publisher. Surprisingly, no one had optioned the stories yet and we soon worked out a deal for the film rights.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Your documentary short, Draft Day, also revolved around the military lottery/draft. What is it about this subject that fascinates you?

Josh Kim: It reminded me of this short story called 'The Lottery' by Shirley Jackson. When you think of a lottery, you think of winning something good. But what the main character 'wins' is a death by stoning by the other villagers, the story a commentary about following tradition for tradition's sake. Similarly, in Draft Day, what the characters 'win' are two years of service in the military. And what was interesting to me about this subject was how the whole ceremony took place to demonstrate how transparent and fair the process was when in reality it was far from it.

Sara Michelle Fetters: There is an observational quality to Checkers I found sublime. Is this where your experience as a documentarian comes into play? When do you know to hold back? How do you know, dramatically speaking, when you've crossed a line over into schmaltz or saccharine melodrama?

Josh Kim: I'm also into melodramas so part of it has to do with taste and the other part is just looking carefully at the motivations behind each action and emotion of the characters.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I loved how the LGBT content just sort of was. No grand statements made. No big push to amplify the content one way or the other. Just presenting things in a matter-of-fact manner, as if none of the content is all that big of a deal, even with the 1990s setting. Which, in its way, is a grand statement, isn't it?

Josh Kim: Years ago, I remember watching the films of Thomas Bezucha - Big Eden and The Family Stone - and realizing how films could be vehicles for change.

In Big Eden, a gay artist from New York City returns to his conservative hometown in the Midwest and instead of encountering prejudice and discrimination as one might expect, he is surprised to find neighbors and elderly women trying to set him up with other gay friends. It was the first time I saw how creating a world (which was unlikely at that time and place) could show viewers a world which could be possible. And I wanted to do that with this film as well.

Sara Michelle Fetters: How difficult was it to find Damrongsakkul? How impressed were you with him?

Josh Kim: Ryu (young Ingkarat) was the first boy that came in. One thing that was important for me as a director was that the emotional scenes looked real. I didn't want a kid come in and fake cry. So during the audition, we tried out one of the emotional scenes and he nailed it. I was so surprised and was ready to move forward, but the producers reminded me that I had only seen just one boy. So we kept bringing him back in to match with the rest of the potential cast and I think by the 3rd time we all just knew that he was the one.

We had called him back twice and each time he was consistently good so I was pretty confident he would be able to handle the character.

Sara Michelle Fetters: As a Korean-American filmmaker, how does your background inform the stories you are looking to tell? Will you continue to move between documentaries and features, or will you just focus on narratives for the time being?

Josh Kim: I love documentaries because you are learning while you are shooting. I think documentaries help to inform my writing on narrative projects. And as a Korean-American, there are many times where I've been in situations that feel both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I think having this insider/outsider status has helped me find a balance when explaining some of the cultural idiosyncrasies. I don't want to over-explain a custom to the point where Thais would find it boring or even exploitative, but I also want to make sure our foreign audience can follow the story.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Your film was very well received internationally and at various festivals here in the United States. What have those reactions meant to you?

Josh Kim: There was a time in the editing process when the film wasn't so great. I had shown an early rough cut to my uncle and he fell asleep after ten minutes. My producers and I kept working on it and didn't give up and it eventually turned into something we are all proud of. So I'm quite grateful whenever I do hear the positive reactions because I still have that taste of failure in my mouth.

Sara Michelle Fetters: What do you hope people are talking about when the film comes to an end? What do you think is on their mind?

Josh Kim: Hopefully people remember the emotions of the film and think about some of the questions the film has raised: What is the cost of success? What causes gaps of inequality to widen and why is it something the rich should also be concerned about? How does having a military draft affect countries with long histories of military coups?

Sara Michelle Fetters: Where do you go from here? What's next?

Josh Kim: I'm working on my next project, which is an adaptation of a Chinese science fiction short story. I'm adapting it into the English language. We recently got a grant from the Korean government to make it into a graphic novel, so I'm planning on working on that this year.

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Josh Kim interview - How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)
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