The first time I saw Karen Kim was high atop an archaic hotel roof in the middle of Bulgaria in 2000.
The film I was shooting there was Isaac Florentine’s US SEALS 2, and I knew the actress I was about to meet was playing the very stoic, disciplined Karate expert/ Samurai specialist who was my unsettled love interest in the film. Though as it appropriately turned out, she was also playing that character’s rambunctious and all-be-damned twin sister, so I wasn’t quite as taken aback by her animated entrance into my life.
Her laugh made it across the precarious rooftop of the building long before she did. Her bouncy gait told me she was as athletic as her character’s Bulgarian-terrorist butt-kicking role required, but like her colorful cinematic twin sister, she was also loaded with energetic personality. She sat next to me in her skintight jeans and t-shirt, raised her sunglasses and extended her hand:
“Hi. I’m Karen. I guess you and I are going to be kicking some butt”
That foreign filming experience set the tone of our relationship over the next dozen years: deep, thoughtful conversations intermixed with wild rides through alien streets and alleyways.
And that would sometimes take place before even leaving her front door.
She immediately shattered my perception of the gorgeous ex-cheerleader for the NFL. Granted, my perception of that type was rather vague and still shrouded in adolescent fantasy but she broke through it nonetheless. Her focused intelligence combined with an energetic playfulness made her stand out in a crowd. While shooting in Sophia, we would get lost for entire days walking the tangled streets and the deeper we got spun around, the happier she seemed. She was the tye that enjoyed the promise of her hard work, but also seemed content at times to toss it all away and risk a moment of discovery.
Over the years, she became not only one of my closest friends, but one of the most stalwart parts of my filmmaking team. After SEALS, I invited Karen to be in five more of my films, quickly learning that whatever I offered to her, she would become that part, embracing it with the same importance and passion that I had written it with. She got those characters, even in ways that I didn’t. And she got me. I realized that during the Christmas of 2005 when she surprised me with a gift of the Criterion Collection’s John Cassavetes’ Five Films DVD set. I had not told Karen that this actor/director became a sort of human road map for my career. She made that connection all by herself. “He sounded like you”, she told me. Though I knew I was far from as skilled, her recognition of my ambition touched me all the same.
Karen’s ability to adapt to our irregular working conditions through many of our independent films including Killing Cupid and God’s Ears, was always a welcomed relief for a director to see in one of his leading actresses. While in the 110 degree heat of Palmdale, Karen, playing a black leather clad assassin in Cupid, would between takes, simply strip down to her underwear, sit on the nearest box and fan herself until the next take. The few outbursts we would ever see from her, always concluded a few minutes later by her typical smile. She would address the small crew saying “Okay, thanks for bearing with me everyone in my girly moment of grief. I love you all”. And everyone loved her back for it.
When she was eight months pregnant, we went up to Vasquez Rocks outside of Los Angeles to shoot some photos of her before she became a fully active mother. She effortlessly moved through the rough landscape (recently turned charcoal black from a controlled burn done in the area) wearing nothing but a shawl; a pregnant phoenix, rising from the ashes. Towards the end while on the rocks and the sun setting in the distance, she moved over to one peak, standing bare to the falling sun and smiled. “Mikey”, she said, as she always called me, “this baby is going to bring me a lot of these sunsets”.
And that was certainly as true as she said. She invited me to her home to take the first photos of them together there. Watching the way that small baby in her hands illuminated her face as if she were holding some brightly burning candle, was the happiest I had ever seen her.
A couple years later, I got a call from her and I immediately heard in her voice something was wrong. She needed to go to a doctor to have some secondary tests done for something she had not yet disclosed. She needed someone to drive her because of the nature of the tests, which may have prevented her from driving home herself. That day, though already aware of the possibility she was suffering from a serious form of cancer, she continued to discuss with me her future and how she wanted to start producing some of our films together. I was the shaken one that day, watching my friend with the tubes and needles protruding from her in the hospital bed even as she joked with the nurses. She continued to talk to me about her plans for a children’s play place she wanted to build for Skyler while I was the one doing my best to remember to breathe. All the while, Karen kept her medical staff laughing and smiling.
It may have been a month later when some of the reality had sunk in with her and we had a long talk about the expectation of her time here. Karen passionately ran through all her feelings and options, extreme as some of them were, all based on one thing: her daughter. Every thought that crossed her mind about being here on this earth or moving on to another place, all revolved around how it would affect her little girl Skyler. The love and concern she had for her daughter was as clear as anything I had seen. And it only grew stronger as her body grew weaker.
Sunday morning, when I was told about her passing the night before, I felt a deep loss along with a simultaneous gain that was almost overwhelming. My conversation with her just the week before was entirely about life. How during so many of our years on this planet, we can easily miss the gift in front of us. The “tool” of existence that allows us to grow and share growth with all those around us.
Our mutual dear friend (and “God’s Ears” cinematographer) Neil Lisk had passed away (also much too early) a couple years before, and we spoke about how it had opened our eyes to the impermanence of our stay here. We discussed how it made us feel, both discovering that living a life to be remembered means we must first live a life WORTH being remembered. And though being an actor is sometimes mistaken as the main stage in which someone can leave that kind of a mark, we both agreed that was far from true. Even the most famous fall into obscurity over time. It is in passing on the hope and the love to others, the gift of self recognition, that is the most memorable thing one can do. Your name and face may one day be forgotten, but the ripples you begin through the most genuine, truthful and simple acts will be the ones felt through the generations for the rest of time.
I see Karen’s ripples have only begun in those around her. And I am one that will be watching them grow for the rest of my time here.
I love you my friend. And I already miss you like crazy.