Looking back on the film work of Karen Kim

by Michael Worth

During my twelve year friendship with Karen Kim, we managed to work together on more projects together than almost any other person I knew.  Through that body of work, she showed me a subtle  yet distinctly different range in her ability as an actress that always surprised me, even though it probably shouldn’t have.  The array of characters she has portrayed only struck me this week as I began to look back on them while thinking of her since her much to early passing.   I feel lucky to have had those opportunities with her and think we all are a little luckier to have the ability to watch the flickering images of her talented self for the rest of time.

Here, I have decided to take a moment and look back on our films together so that if any one of you are interested in seeing some of her work, you may find this useful to help guide you towards one or more films to see or maybe visit again.

US SEALS 2

“Seriously, this movie rocks. If you are kung fu fan or into b-movies in anyway, then check out U.S. Seals 2.” – Cool Target Review

This was the film I met Karen on shot back in 2000.  A crazy, over the top, popcorn action film about a group of trained commandos going to an island where they are unable to use conventional weapons to stop a mad man from…. That’s right; blowing something up.  Karen plays a pair of twin sisters, one of which will go on to the island with a samurai sword to start racking up a body count.  Many actors with little or no fight experience make unstable action stars at best, but Karen managed to turn her dancing skills into deceptively authentic fighting skills.  Working closely with both the director Isaac Florentine and fight choreographer Andy Cheng, she threw herself head first into the combat scenes and without my relying on hyperbole, she really looks good!  Watch her fight with Sophia Crawford and Andy towards the end.  We spent three days shooting those scenes along with my fight with Damian Chapa and is probably my favorite sequence of action I have ever done.

Karen also had to do more than morph into an unstoppable Lady Snowblood samurai, she had to adopt a Japanese accent (which Hakim Alston had no idea she was going to do and if you watch the scene with all of us around the computers half way through the movie, you can see we are all trying not too laugh because of his reaction to her voice) throughout the film.  We rehearsed for a week before shooting so most of us were already pretty sore before the cameras were even rolling but Karen kept up and did it with relish.  Karen also had to play beyond the mechanized killing machine and show some deeper emotions in several scenes.  So if you want to see Karen at her physical peak, this is the one to watch.

You can also search on youtube for a Behind The Scenes mockumentary she and I did (The Bulgarian SEAL Project) to keep our heads sane while shooting there.  Southworth, Alston, Mitch Gould, Marshall Teague, etc., all find their way into it.

KILLING CUPID (WARRIOR OR ASSASSIN)

In 2003, I was given a VERY small amount of money, 15 cans of old 16mm film stock and a Lorenzo Lamas.  I was asked to make a film in 8 days by a film producer looking to squeeze a few dollars from the action market.  And so I took the offer as a challenge and did the only smart thing; make a dark comedy with Easter Bunny hit-men where Ron Howard’s father plays a man obsessed with Bruce Lee rip off movies.  This experimental film was called Killing Cupid.  I asked a group of actors from a film called Ghost Rock I had written and acted in the prior year to come and take on this crazy script and even crazier schedule.  Adding to that mix, I brought in Karen Kim.

The story was about an assassin (Jenya Lano) who has an epiphany after shooting her target and seeks out the man’s son (me) for some kind of absolution.  When she finds him, she realizes the “outside world” is not quite what she thought it would be.  Karen played one of Jenya’s ex partners who with a group of other assassins seek her out to kill her.  The film was a fairly surreal comedy  (think David Lynch remaking The Killers with no script and then sobers up on the last day of shooting) and Karen like the rest of the cast, had to play some unreal characters as real as possible.  It was an experiment with not only story lines and performances, but technology as well (some of the film I actually shot on a Super 8mm camera, I used old Kung Fu movies for the credit sequence, etc.,).   We were all venturing into some very risky territory with our bold endeavor, but Karen, like the others, did not treat it with any less reverence than any other project. Her character, named Diamond, is the most myopic and pissed off of the group but she managed to take on the difficult task of making angry look funny and did it effortlessly.

DUAL

Out in the middle of the Arizona desert in 2005, Steven R. Monroe was directing my script, Dual with myself and Tim Thomerson.  The film was a surprisingly dark romance I wrote not long before shooting began.  I say “surprisingly” because that is normally not the way I tend to envision my ideas of romance.  But something was in that darkness that I felt had some merit and wanted to see it come to life. We had 11 days to shoot and were on about day 6 when our intended leading actresses dropped out.  We had one day to get someone out there for the four days left of shooting and we knew we were in for a rough one.  A character originally conceived as a very blonde haired and blue-eyed country girl, Karen’s type did not immediately jump out at me.  But when I presented the idea to Steven, he without delay said yes, feeling her being so off the archetypal route would serve the film much better.  And did it ever. With just one days notice, Karen Kim was on the set pouring her heart out.

Dual is a thriller set in the old west, where a drifter (that Michael Worth again) rides through a town and finds everyone has been killed.  As he remains to bury the dead and figure out what took place, he finds a mysterious man is stalking him on horseback.  Karen plays “Ember” the lone survivor of the killings who takes my character through an emotional journey that has a powerful outcome for everyone.  This part was by far the most emotionally draining thing that I have ever seen Karen play.  It is also in my opinion the best acting she has ever done.  Where she had to go psychologically is about as far as one can go on film.  Her organic portrayal of such a complex character still makes me tear up every time.  Monroe allowing the camera to stay on these long emotional moments and find the subtle shifts the way it does, helps so much to present the acting in its rawest form (“God’s Ears” Margot Farley also turns in a troubling yet beautiful performance).  And Karen’s role was not just an overly emoting persona, but at times a nearly silent one, relying on only her eyes to convey the range of feelings she was going through.  I had to do some of the most painful scenes of my own career with Karen and these still stand as the rare moments where I forget I’m watching myself.

It may be the most difficult film of hers to watch in many ways, the pain and agony we see her go through touches a lot of chords, but I think it is such a strong testimony to her talent and ability as an actor.

SASQUATCH MOUNTAIN

This was another script I wrote and Steven R. Monroe directed.  It was a “group of misfits on the run” picture with a giant hairy Sasquatch thrown in to keep it honest.  We knew what we were making so set out to try and fill the film with as much good energy and elevated performances as we could.  Lance Henriksen plays the man no one believes in who goes after a group of bank robbers and missing police in the deep backwoods before confronting his old primate foe.  Karen plays Kayla, one of the bank robbers that kidnaps the beautiful runaway bride Erin (Cerina Vincent).  And like Diamond from Killing Cupid, Karen is the more cold hearted member of the group.  But through the course of the story as the characters all confront their own personal “devils”, she begins to unravel and reveal the frightened child underneath.

At one point during the shoot, she had accidentally hit one of the actors (Frank Reeves) with the butt of her gun, cutting his head.  I remember seeing how badly she felt about it that day and contrasting that with the “not give a damn” person she was playing.   She had a way of bringing believably disturbed personas out of her very sensitive and caring reality that was always fun to watch.  Her back and forth banter with Raffaello Degruttola and Craig Wasson pushes the film along in my opinion.  Not to mention her scuffle with the equally durable Cerina isn’t bad on the eyes either.

There is a video on Youtube we all shot and I cut together on the making of the film.  It is fun to watch to see the cast interacting and you even get a little of the “gun on the head” aftermath caught on camera.

This would also be the shoot where she gave me The Black Eyed Peas CD she had just bought and I still play it in the gym to this day.

GOD’S EARS

I had a half written script about an autistic man wanting to box as a means of engaging with people when an old producer friend agreed to put up a nominal amount of money to make it.  This was the story I most wanted to make as I felt it was not required to fit a genre, but to survive on the merits of its own story and performances.  As I wrote it, I wasn’t even sure at the time I was going to be in it, but there was one person I wrote a role specifically for and that was Karen.  It was the part of a wisecracking dancer named Candy who was the lead girl’s (Margot Farley) best friend.  I needed someone who could believably embrace a Steadfast metropolitan personality but who for a brief moment finds solace through her friend’s more instinctive experiences.  It’s hard to play an injured, facade heavy, “funny sidekick” character as someone with vulnerability and heart, but as I knew, Karen could do it.

There are a few scenes in the film where I really see some genuine “Karen Kim” coming forth that in ways are not wholly apparent in the other films.  Her speech to Margot about “walking the tight rope” and listening to Tim Thomerson talk about Steve Mcqueen reveal what I always see as the real Karen (the Thomerson scene is also fun to watch as the bee at the end flying over her was unplanned and her line reacting to the whole thing is pure improvisational Karen).

This was also the second and last film that she would do with our cinematographer Neil Lisk.  Neil and Karen always had a great relationship and they both shared that nice balance of human kindness and fierce professionalism.  For that reason alone, the film stands out for me as exceptionally memorable.  One day in particular, when our camera broke down while we were 5 hours away from the nearest camera house, we all spent the afternoon in this beautiful setting in the mountains unable to shoot.  The movie crew immediately turned into a Cub Scout field trip as we all wandered off, taking in the sights.  At one point, Karen and Neil were both petting a horse over in a field and I remember thinking how valuable it was to have those two personalities like that under these working conditions.  I still see that picture in my head as if I had filmed it.

Today, the value of that is priceless.

You can find some outtakes from the film on youtube, one in particular with Karen where her cell phone goes off in the middle of the take and her embarrassment is clear even though everyone else laughs it off.  I was so proud to have been there in 2011 when Karen won a Best Actress Award for her performance in the film at The American Film Festival Awards.

BRING ME THE HEAD OF LANCE HENRIKSEN

Last year I returned to my experimental roots and made the hyper-documentary, Bring Me the Head of Lance Henriksen.  It is a film that will be out early next year at the festivals (and various screenings) that follows a somewhat fictional premise, but all the interactions contained are real and unplanned.  It is one of the most interesting and truthfully more difficult projects I have ever made.  I love its distinctiveness, yet that is what has made it such a challenge to form.

The project is loaded with long time staples of Hollywood just being themselves in precarious situations.  Lance Henriksen, Tim Thomerson, Adrienne Barbeau, Martin Kove, John Witherspoon, Robert Patrick, George Cheung, etc., all make appearances.  There is one group of sequences where Tim goes back to acting school against his better judgment and in one scene he bumps into Karen.  It would be the last thing I ever shot with her.

She came down to the acting school in Hollywood a couple days before she was to actually have some major surgery.  As with every one else in the film, I told her she should just be herself and let come up whatever she felt comfortable with in the scene but not to be anything other than who she really was.  In one of the takes, Tim starts to ask her how she is doing and Karen begins to sigh and tell him things are “okay” but that life is also full of challenges.  She didn’t hold back and began to talk about what she was going through, bringing Tim into the moment with her that is very clearly the two of them no longer being in front of the camera, but just talking to each other.  I remember the scene itself at the time had no real story point, but was just a moment where two struggling people in Hollywood connect over something much more real than the fictional life they are living.  Here was Karen facing the man that had tormented her in Dual, chased her into the woods in Sasquatch and expressed a silent moment of affection for her with just a baseball cap in God’s Ears, and the two were simply smiling at each other and talking.

And then the scene ended with a hug as Karen moved off towards the stairs, leaving Tim alone.

The last film I shot in early 2012, Seeking Dolly Parton, was actually going to co-star Karen.  Like God’s Ears, I had written a part just for her and we were going to film it at her business, Romp.  She was going to play one of the character’s boss and she wanted to include her Cancer experience into the role.  I wrote several scenes with her input, dealing with the struggle she was enduring at the time.  When we went to shoot in January, the timing with her real life was too strained to make the shoot work and so I took the role out.  I didn’t want someone else playing it and so I never recast it.

That role was meant only for Karen.  No one else could have filled those cinematic shoes.

Some of these films can be found online on Netflix, Hulu and even on the Syfy Channel.

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