Unforgotten Still A still from Sujin Kim's short film, 'Unforgotten. | Image: Courtesy of the artist

Sujin Kim’s Student Academy Award-Winning Film Allows ‘Comfort Women’ to Tell Their Own Stories

When Sujin Kim (Film/Video MFA 20) first saw Jan Švankmajer’s 1988 film Alice, a dark surrealist interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, she was an undergraduate student in South Korea, entrenched in traditional art making. But watching the film ignited something inside of Kim, making her feel like she had taken her own trip down the rabbit hole. After years of study and art practice focused on painting and realism—first at the prestigious Seoul Arts High School and then as an undergraduate student at Ewha Womans University—Švankmajer’s experimental work took Kim’s breath away and helped to change the course of her artistic practice forever. 

“I found myself no longer interested in reproducing reality through a single still image anymore,” Kim said. “I was now fascinated with moving images.” 

After earning her BFA at Ewha, Kim taught painting and drawing for a few years in South Korea. But she never lost her interest in moving images, so eventually she began researching experimental animation graduate programs as a means to pursue this work further. Of the two programs that Kim was accepted to in the United States, she chose CalArts, largely because of her strong desire to work with Maureen Selwood, a faculty member who retired in 2021.   

As Kim settled into her studies as an Experimental Animation MFA at the Institute, she was quickly drawn to the idea of telling a story that had long captivated her interest. The term “comfort women” is a euphemism used for the thousands of mostly Korean women who were forced into sex slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. After following the highly charged political discussions between current political leaders in both South Korea and Japan about how to properly recognize and memorialize these women, Kim was disappointed that the victims were, for the most part, left out of the equation. She began to conduct her own research into the issue, combing through written and oral testimonies of the women about their experiences and looking for a way to tell their stories.

“I was fascinated by the voices of the survivors and their will of resistance that I could feel through their testimonies,” Kim said. “I thought the archived testimonies provided strong evidence to show that the survivors were not only victims but also brave human rights activists who wanted to stop other women from being sacrificed sexually during wartime.”

While stories about comfort women have been told across numerous mediums over the years—including in books, movies, theater productions, and beyond—like many stories that involve violence, they have often been told in a manner that emphasizes the violence above all else. Instead, Kim was interested in making a deliberate attempt to tell the stories of comfort women differently. For her, focusing on the sexual violence as a means for moving the viewer reduced the power that the women retain over their own stories and diminished their own heroism at the expense of placing too much of the focus on those who have committed the violence against them. 

“I think filmmakers should have respect for a person’s real-life story and trauma that is being delivered through their film,” Kim said. “I did not want to take the cliché approach that often happens in stories about survivors’ life-long traumas. I think that filmmakers should be thoughtful about their visual language when depicting somebody else’s memory and pain.” 

To achieve her goal of giving the survivors space to tell their own stories, free from their tormentors, Kim chose to use metaphorical and poetic imagery that strikingly reflected the victims’ mindset. Her unique choice struck a strong chord with viewers and critics alike.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Kim a coveted Gold Medal in Animation (Domestic School) for “Unforgotten” at the 48th Student Academy Awards last October. Kim was among just 17 other winners from around the world. She even had CalArtian and Pixar Animation Studios chief creative officer Pete Docter (Film/Video BFA 90) break the news to her about winning gold during the ceremony. It was a remarkable achievement for Kim, who is only just beginning her journey as a filmmaker.

“Winning the Student Academy Award is the most meaningful achievement I can get as a person who studied animation in school,” Kim said during her acceptance speech. Past Student Academy Award winners have gone on to win 11 Oscars and receive 63 Oscar nominations. 

Beyond her work with “Unforgotten,” Kim has also engaged in a number of commercial projects, including collaborations with Roc Nation, Epitaph Records, and Warner Music UK. But Kim has also reentered the realm of education, this time as a faculty member. Kim recently began a position as a tenure-track assistant professor of 3D animation at the School of Art within the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. It’s providing another opportunity to expand her career and share the impact that animation and art have on the world.

“Teaching students in an animation program enables me to understand the power that animation has as a dominant artistic tool for our generation,” she said. It is perhaps this point more than any other that Kim has taken from her young yet remarkably prolific and successful career as an animator. And she is looking forward to harnessing her skill and experience as an artist and using it further for good.

“I want to be an educator and artist who can guide myself and my students toward delivering diverse voices through animated films,” Kim said. “I want to use my art to encourage inclusion and reduce exclusion.”