Pandemic echoes the ordeals of film’s subject — sex workers

The story had been brewing in her for years — a tale of disease, isolation and a state’s control over women’s bodies during a troubling chapter in South Korea’s not-so-distant past.

Gina Kim’s virtual reality film will immerse viewers in the life of a “camp town” prostitute catering to U.S. troops stationed in the country in the 1970s. The narrative will focus on a day her character spends locked in a government-run treatment center, being pumped with antibiotics for a suspected case of venereal disease.

Kim, a film professor at UCLA, hadn’t planned on shooting at a time when much of what her protagonist experienced — rudimentary contact tracing, stigmatization from infection, quarantine and government control over citizens’ health — would overlap with the day-to-day lives of millions around the globe.

But to tell the story in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kim would fly across the Pacific, undergo a 14-day quarantine and sheath herself in a biohazard suit to make the film that came to feel more relevant to today’s world than she could have imagined.

The veteran director’s journey turned into an unexpected discovery of parallels between the current health crisis and the ordeal of women who a half-century ago found themselves at the mercy of both the U.S. and South Korean governments, yet for whom neither wanted to take responsibility. In both cases, the body was subject to larger forces.

“It would have been almost unthinkable to restrict people’s bodies this way in modern society. … But it became a universal experience,” she said. “The political is manifest in individuals’ bodies.”

Kim’s film is set in a now-overgrown and abandoned two-story building with barred windows once known among locals as the “Monkey House,” located in Dongducheon, a city about an hour north of Seoul where American soldiers have been stationed since the 1950s.

While there’s no telling what the world will look like by the time the film is ready for release next year, Kim said she was curious to see how the pandemic, with its loneliness, fear and graves, will color viewers’ reception of the movie.

“We’ve all experienced being locked away and isolated due to a virus,” she said. “We’ll never be able to go back.”