Problems in the Ethics of Female Representation

Posts Kim Gin-a Kim Han-Sang

  • Created at2022.07.15
  • Updated at2022.11.25

[Editor’s Note]

The Research Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery hosted a conversation between film director Gina Kim and professor Han Sang Kim on the topic of “Problems in the Ethics of Female Representation.” Starting with some behind-the-scenes from Gina Kim’s U.S. Military “Comfort Women” trilogy, the two participants touched on media representation of the woman’s body, alternative representation through new media, reflections on non-exploitative representation, and disrupting gender hegemony using AR.[1]

Gina Kim is a filmmaker based in South Korea and the U.S., as well as professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media at UCLA. Her filmography includes “Gina Kim’s Video Diary” (2002), “Invisible Light” (2003), “Never Forever” (2007), “Faces of Seoul” (2009) and “Final Recipe” (2014), among others. “Bloodless” (2017) and “Tearless” (2021) are the first two projects in the U.S. Military “Comfort Women” trilogy which employs immersive media.

Han Sang Kim is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Ajou University. His research interests include visual cultures, archives, race/ethnicity, mobilities, and visual sociological methods. Kim’s recent review on Kyeol discusses the representational ethics of “not showing” as displayed in Bloodless, along with implications for the representation of memories of Japanese Military “Comfort Women” victims.

Related: “Gazing at the ‘Death Pit’ and Representation of the Memories of ‘Comfort Women’ Victims”


Ethically Representing the Voiceless

Han Sang Kim

Gina, I am pleased to have this conversation about “Problems in the Ethics of Female Representation.” You have recently completed, and presented in film festivals, the second film of your U.S. Military “Comfort Women” trilogy. In the process, the idea arose for a conversation about the work, which led to our meeting today. 

Gina Kim

I would say the topic of “Problems in the Ethics of Female Representation,” to put it more precisely, concerns the issue of looking at the pain of others. The U.S. Military “Comfort Women” trilogy results from pursuing the difficult question of visually representing the many violences against women as well as the pain of those who endure said violences. The third work of the trilogy is currently in production; this all really began in my first year of college, with the 1992 murder of Yun Geum-i. Looking back, it was the defining moment of my identity as an artist. The same year saw major events related to women’s rights, such as the sexual harassment case by Prof. Shin of Seoul National University and the Kim Bo-eun & Kim Jin-kwan case; nonetheless, Yun’s murder was the one that shook me to the core.

Even before the murder, there probably was a general understanding, albeit a vague one, of the existence of the U.S. Military “Comfort Women” in Korea—and the crimes happening in the camptowns. However, it was Yun’s murder that shed light on these issues. The U.S. Military “Comfort Women” belonged neither to Korea nor to the U.S.; they were unprotected; and they even had to endure the Korean society’s contempt towards them. Their children, considered non-standard, inconvenient beings that disturb existing notions of race and nation, were also not welcome anywhere.

What really caused me to assimilate the event as if it was my own experience were the Yun-related protests. The student council had thrown together lots of copies of a poor-quality flyer; the photograph of Yun’s dead, mutilated body was printed on it. As I looked at the photograph, I felt something being burned into my mind: the desperate self-awareness as a woman living in a post-colonial society. Female students were agonized by the fact that the image kept circulating throughout the protest; if there was one thing we could do, we thought, wouldn’t it be stopping the image from being spread? The feeling of guilt and indebtedness has haunted me since. Yes, it was a win that the American perpetrator of the camptown murder had to face the law in a Korean court; however, another harm was done to Yun in the form of reproduced images of her body. By exploiting the victim in the name of historical progress, we had taken on debt; how to pay it off became a long term concern of mine. My contemplation on the ethics involved in representing the pain of others, especially that of the weak and voiceless, grew into a discontent over conventional representations in film. What remained central to my exploration of different genres and formats including visual arts, video art, documentary and feature film—my aesthetic basis—is this consideration of representational ethics.

Han Sang Kim, Gina Kim ⓒResearch Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery

Absence of body

Han Sang Kim

I think similar concerns were behind controversies among historians on the representation of images of the Holocaust and other historical atrocities—for instance, historian Susan Crane’s proposal of “choosing not to look.” It seems apparent from your filmography that you devoted some time to contemplating the possibilities of representation through the female body, in addition to investigating the city and representing the post-colonial from a female urban perspective. Could you speak about how this trajectory led you to a completely different type of representational strategy, namely virtual reality?

Gina Kim

I think there are points in my filmography which definitely explain why I have arrived where I have arrived. Working on my first cinematic project, “Gina Kim’s Video Diary” (2002), I was already very resistant against how the visual language of cinema was used to represent the female body. I experimented passionately in search of an alternative visual language, studying the works of early feminist artists and media activists and filming my own body; I thought about how the female body is represented within the frame. This period helped shape my cinematographic perspective in a way that is different from a male-centric point of view. I believe the act of looking and recording/shooting something, letting it exist across time, fundamentally requires both respect and empathy towards the subject—a belief which I became capable of intuitively expressing. I tend to think of all my subjects as part of my own body. I must have gotten that from five years of filming “Gina Kim’s Video Diary.”

“Invisible Light” (2003) was an attempt to subvert the mother-prostitute binary classification of women. A pregnant woman sleeps with a stranger and masturbates for six minutes; a mistress treats her body in an unconventionally stoic, sadistic manner. I wanted to tell the story of real women with bodily desires, rather than one of fictional characters conforming to notions of patriarchy. In “Never Forever” (2007), I wanted to overturn the relationship of Asian men and white women in a white society, as well as how that relationship is represented.

“Faces of Seoul” (2009) laid the groundwork for the thinking that underlies the U.S. Military “Comfort Women” trilogy. The film is an edited compilation of random footage I recorded each time I went to Korea between 1995, the year of the Sampoong Department Store collapse, and 2006. It speaks, ultimately, about what it means to represent. The film-making process began with a declaration: I wanted to see the city of Seoul. But as things progressed, what it truly meant to see a city seemed increasingly out of reach. How does one dare claim to see a city—an organic assemblage of time and space, not only physically larger than but beyond the grasp of an individual? I reflected on what it means to see—and to look—as well as what a cinematic representation, an act of documentation and expression to be shared with others, meant. I also tried to appreciate the disparity between geographic signifiers and signifieds, a singular characteristic of post-colonial societies.

Faces of Seoul ⓒGina Kim


After all, looking at space is looking at time; looking at a landscape or a scenery is, in fact, looking at what is absent from there. In other words, the representation of something is the representation of its absence. A pattern kept repeating itself in the city of Seoul; whenever I went to film something that existed in my memory, it was not there and something else was instead. A semiotic dilemma in which I attempt to tell a story about something and represent it, despite it not existing. While “Faces of Seoul” was a geographic interpretation of conflicts in a post-colonial society, the U.S. Military “Comfort Women” trilogy problematizes the transnational violence inflicted on female bodies and its representation.

Although I was not particularly knowledgeable about VR in the past, I moderated a conference about VR Cinema at the Busan International Film Festival in 2016 where I was introduced to lots of good articles. Around that time, the phrase “absence of body” occurred to me—like a lightbulb going on in my mind. I finally thought I might be able to tell a story about Yun’s murder, through the absence of (her dead) body. Any story told about this event involves a dilemma in which one needs to speak about the unspeakable, the ineffable pain of the other; the idea here was to overcome that dilemma by, ironically, neither showing nor explaining. However, this kind of approach was not acceptable within the structure of feature films. When I was introduced to immersive media, I was convinced this medium could induce empathy in a new way that goes beyond what is possible in other artistic forms such as visual arts, film, photography, poetry, or theatre.

Representation’s Alternative Path and Its Extensibility: VR, AR, and XR

Han Sang Kim

In “Bloodless” (2017), after putting on the VR headset, the viewer is transported to a certain place in Dongducheon; they move towards the murder scene while figuring it out where they are, hinted by the surrounding sound and landscape. This is a novel and alternative method of addressing Yun’s murder, which has a very problematic history of representation in Korea. At the same time, the viewer’s participation requires not just a venue and technical equipment, but also the will and courage to enter the VR world. How could one extend VR’s potential as an alternative path to representation and make it possible for more people to experience it?

Bloodless ⓒGina Kim


Gina Kim

I think about this a lot, and it is not an easy one. Compared to conventional 2D cinema, access to VR cinema is much more limited; what would correspond to a wide release might be uploading it to the Oculus app store, which even then would only be available to people who own an Oculus. However, my conclusion was: this is nonetheless the right way. My decision to make a VR film originally stems from this feeling of indebtedness; I wanted to repair the immense wrong committed by exploiting the victim’s photograph for greater publicity. That is why I want to choose a more ethical form of representation, even if it means the film is less impactful and less people end up watching it.

I am also interested in augmented reality, another type of immersive media; AR has a more democratic aspect in terms of distribution and circulation. Almost all software is free, so if you have the skills you can use them to produce your work, which you can then upload on the app store—you can also distribute it freely. “The Augmented Reality of Monkey House” (2022) and “The Extended Reality of Monkey House” (2022) were produced using this technology. The viewer can use “The Extended Reality of Monkey House” app and walk the hallways of the Soyosan STD medical prison, a.k.a. Monkey House: a government establishment aimed at controlling sexually transmitted diseases in which U.S. Military “Comfort Women” where detained and treated. When you download and run the AR app the camera will automatically turn on, through which you can look at your room which is transformed into the hallways of the medical prison for you to walk and experience. “The Augmented Reality of Monkey House” features a 3D model of the facility’s exteriors; I wanted to archive the soon-to-be-removed site for people to see semi-permanently. By employing multi-layered and multi-faceted forms of immersive media, I am investigating ways to more effectively communicate these issues.

Han Sang Kim

What do you think about expanding VR through public institutions like museums?

Gina Kim

Screening VR in public museums is of course a great idea. I also think public exhibitions will be nice, as opposed to film-like screenings, so that more people can have access.

Gender-Based Differences in the Sensed VR Experience

Han Sang Kim

I think museums might also consider permanent exhibitions, as long as these allow for an introspective representation of history, a soul-searching regarding unethical representations, such as Yun Geum-i’s case. You mentioned archiving with regards to the “Monkey House”; I think it is important that the viewer is led to enter a space, to look, feel and experience the place from within. At the same time, given that the location in the VR film is where an atrocious act of violence was committed, the experience seems likely to be different depending on the viewer’s gender. Let’s talk about the ethical implications of having the viewer experience such direct fear and horror.

Gina Kim

“Bloodless,” which had many international screenings, might be an important case study on viewers’ reactions. I was surprised that even without prior knowledge, viewers were able to feel the fear of the potential violence implicated in the space. However, the degree of that experience was clearly related to one’s gender, race, and nationality. Korean women seemed to feel the fear most intensely; next were women from other East Asian countries. There was a clear distinction between the reaction of women who live in a post-colonial nation which faced the harms of imperialism, and that of women who live in other countries. Non-East-Asian people of color came next, with women’s reaction being much more intense within the group as well. Some white women seemed to be scared depending on their sensitivity, while white men seemed to fear the least.

All of the viewers I met at the Venice Film Festival, where “Bloodless” premiered internationally, were white; none of the men seemed to connect the film’s emotions with fear. I asked if the film was scary, to which the general response was no—instead, it was “disturbing.” Many of the white men did not even seem to consider the possibility that they could be the subject of violence within that space. They looked around very actively, turning their heads, as if fascinated. Their reaction eventually became somber too at the end of the film, but the starting point of that emotion was very different. Most Korean women viewers tended to feel scared upon the start of the night scene, as soon as the entrance to Dongducheon becomes visible. Seeing how post-colonial trauma was handed down to young women who never experienced it first-hand, was perplexing and sad.

Han Sang Kim

While it is important to know the history and develop one’s awareness through experience, concerns about ethical media still remain since the experience itself can be trauma-inducing. I imagine your exploration of AR is connected to such concerns; are you considering other extended ways of using AR?

Gina Kim ⓒResearch Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery


Gina Kim

It is indeed painful and scary to enter a site of gender-based violence. Even when you are visiting a virtual reality world instead of navigating the space with your actual body. On the other hand, there is an uneasiness and fear innate to the media when it comes to immersive media experiences. Dr. Erin Chung (Dept. of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University), having watched the film and joined my lecture, made a remark on the parallels between VR and the way I assimilated Yun’s murder through street protests.

While picketing is the common form of protest nowadays, a typical resistance against the violent government up until the early nineties involved putting your own body in the frontline. You were shot at with tear gas ​​canisters, and baton-wielding police forces cracked open protesters’ skulls. Hunger strikes also belong in the same vein of body-centered protests. One might say that these types of struggles are quite tragic and even inefficient. However, I think one chose to engage in them because they were the few available options—risking bodily threats while standing up for the weak you want to represent. Twenty-five years later, as I encountered VR, what stood out the most was the fact that upon putting on the VR headset, you too become a virtual being. As one comes to the realization that their body is absent, one experiences fear. You have a sight, you can hear, you can see the virtual beings, but you are missing a virtual body that can actively respond to situations in the surrounding environment. In a way, the viewer becomes ghost-like. Giving up bodily agency to enter virtual reality, where one meets other beings and events keep happening anew; I thought VR was revolutionary in that sense.

There is another potentially significant dimension in AR regarding women’s agency; namely, the ability for young women viewers to explore historical places in which (other) young women have been subject to structural gender-based violence. I consider this ability to observe and explore the space with agency, as one wishes, very empowering. The viewer’s position as active explorer, rather than passive spectator, can grant great power to the woman viewer. This seems to be an interesting point specific to AR as a medium, and quite contrary to how VR operates.

Power-Subverting Democratic Media: Returning the Female Body to Women

Han Sang Kim

This perhaps does not apply to street protests, but VR seems to share some similarities with the gut shamanistic ritual or Madangguk performances, such as a participatory mode of experience and the existence of a transcendental medium.

Gina Kim

My first VR experience was one of deep-sea exploration. I had seen these kinds of images countless times in documentaries, and yet I was so scared. This was when I encountered the fear that comes from the absence of my body. I realized two things: the VR audience is psychologically similar to a passive observer/victim, and VR is similar to theatre.

My immediate impression of VR was that it is less akin to film and more to theatre—especially an experimental one where the audience is not seated in rows but gathered in the center of an open space, while actors run out from all directions and unpredictable events happen. The audience in the middle might see the simultaneous events that occur in the surrounding 360 degrees, or they might not; depending on which actor they are paying attention to, they might catch the lines or they might not. I was intrigued by VR’s similarity to experimental theater, where the narrative changes based on the object of your relationship. The power relationship between the audience and the dramaturg is completely subverted; politically speaking, it is a democratic medium. As the subject, I lose my body and become a spectral figure in the experience; I think there must be a VR-specific psychological mechanism operating in the audience’s mind.

Han Sang Kim ⓒResearch Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery


Han Sang Kim

The issues in the representation of female bodies have long existed since the development of representational media, and it still remains a difficult one today. In particular, there still is the negligence in gender-based ethics when it comes to representing historical events, which you have problematized through your works. I am glad we could bring these issues up in our conversation. Hopefully, this new immersive media environment will be supported through public institutions and education and, as a result, reach more people, which might be one of the quickest ways forward.

Gina Kim

Throughout my filmography, I have employed many media forms while working on the issue of female representation; one might ask what I ultimately envision. The answer to that question is to return the female body to women. As soon as a woman’s body becomes a metaphor, an allegory, a symbol in visual media, her voice is completely erased. What I want to do is to show the female body, not as a metaphor or a symbol for something else, but as the existence that it is. And in doing so, returning to women their body and their voice, returning to them power and life , in their representation in media culture. And doing so even though it might be difficult and uncomfortable for people accustomed to conventional male-centric film grammar and narratives.



  1. ^ While the term “comfort women” has been associated with the Japanese imperial army’s use of sexual slavery during World War II, the South Korean government has used the term since 1951 to refer to “women who provide comfort service” to the U.S. military. The term is also used by the Supreme Court in its 2022 ruling on the state compensation lawsuit for the Camptown U.S. military Comfort Women.
Writer Kim Gin-a

Kim Gin-a is a filmmaker based in South Korea and the U.S., as well as professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media at UCLA. Her filmography includes “Gina Kim’s Video Diary” (2002), “Invisible Light” (2003), “Never Forever” (2007), “Faces of Seoul” (2009) and “Final Recipe” (2014), among others. “Bloodless” (2017) and “Tearless” (2021) are the first two projects in the U.S. Military “Comfort Women” trilogy which employs immersive media.

Writer Kim Han-Sang

Associate professor at the Department of Sociology, Ajou University. His research interests include visual cultures, archives, race/ethnicity, mobilities, and visual sociological methods.