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A Legacy of Memories

Photo credit Rommel Cabanal

A photography request helped me hear my dad’s voice for the first time in 15 years.

dad illustration

In September 2019, I received an email from CapU’s School of Motion Picture Arts (SMPA) for a straightforward request: three students and an instructor, Lewis Bennett, had their respective films accepted to the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). I was asked to make portraits of each person for a news story.

Bennett, whose work has been in the Tribeca Film Festival, South by Southwest and the New York Times, began his career by working on narrative short films. In 2010, he read about Sparrow Songs, a project in which a filmmaking duo sets out to make one documentary every month for a year.

The ambitious project lit a spark, and in 2012, Bennett tried recreating the same experiment for himself. He didn’t quite meet his target, but that, in the end, wasn’t the point.

lewis Lewis Bennett in September 2019. Photo by Tae Hoon Kim.

“It gave me a reason to make stuff,” he said. “I stopped worrying about trying to make everything perfect and was just like, ‘Some of these things are going to be not great, and that’s okay: I’m going to learn a lot.’”

A few days after receiving the email from SMPA, I met Bennett to make some portraits and found out more about Danny, his project that had been accepted to VIFF. The film features the eponymous Danny Ryder, who, after being diagnosed with leukemia in 1993, picks up a camcorder and begins recording himself, his thoughts and his surroundings. The documentary is edited entirely from the found tapes, discovered by Bennett’s co-director and friend Aaron Zeghers (who is also Ryder’s nephew).

When Bennett explained to me how the tapes were digitized, I started thinking about my own family’s home videos.

My dad, the archivist

My dad, Kwahn Wook Kim, was an architect back when we were still living in South Korea, but I think there was an aspiring photographer and filmmaker in him as well. My entire childhood, I remember growing up around his cameras and their related accessories.

He was constantly documenting our family — so much so that when he died within a month of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005, I remember my mom and my sister lamenting they couldn’t find any decent and recent photos of him to display at his funeral. They just ended up having to crop in on one of our family portraits.

dad camera My dad with his camera in Jasper, Alberta.

Anytime we moved, we would have to make space in the home to stack boxes and boxes of 8mm and VHS tapes that my dad had made. Each tape is meticulously labelled in his handwriting, with timestamps. Here’s an example of one:

  • Minjae/Taehoon Lotte World, 20 minutes
  • 90, January 27, snow day, 30 minutes
  • Taehoon birthday, 90, 10 minutes
  • Minjae birthday, 90, 3 minutes
  • Yongpyong visit, 91 summer, June 17, 55 minutes
  • Taehoon birthday, 92, 5 minutes

When I mentioned these tapes, Bennett generously let me borrow his digitizing equipment. In late 2019, I opened the boxes and started watching.

The minute details

There were two general categories of material found among the tapes: my dad’s business trips and our family home videos.

His specialty as an architect was designing and building resorts. His claim to fame was being the chief architect of Yongpyong Ski Resort, the first ski resort built in South Korea, that later hosted some events during the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.

My dad documented his business trips, where he visited and studied resorts around North America and Asia. For hours, he carries his camcorder to record his observations. Some are recognizable scenes you and I know from our feeds today: the snowy mountain peaks as the plane prepares to land, the sunset outside the car window while driving to the hotel.

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For the rest, my dad holds his camera as he walks through resorts, zooming in on some detail that catches his eye. He barely speaks, but I hear him breathing, concentrating on holding the camera steady, absorbing the information he wants to bring back to his own work.

Most of this footage is, frankly, boring. He stops and holds the camera on some mundane detail I don’t understand: the layout of lockers near an equipment rental stand, the corner of a hotel room, the wayfinding signs.

Then, he enters a washroom. I lean in. I see him: his reflection in the mirror, as he films a counter. I watch a moving image of him for the first time since he died. Then it’s gone.

He pans the camera away, finding something else that interests him. I scan hours and hours of tapes for these scenes that only last a few seconds, trying to catch a new detail each time.

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His own love language

I resented my dad for many years.

After moving to Canada, we didn’t have a great relationship. We lived the distant parent-child dynamic with which many immigrant families are familiar — busy trying to fit in and adapt to my new culture, I was quick to feel embarrassed and reject my parents and their ways, beliefs and expectations. With no common ground, my dad and I couldn’t find ways to properly communicate. We fought. A lot.

Our story is not an uncommon one, as evidenced by the popularity of creators like Nick Cho: watching his persona Your Korean Dad — a supportive and emotionally available Asian father figure — feels so strange it feels like you’re doing something wrong.

Looking back, this was what hurt me most about my upbringing: seeing, both in media and among my new Canadian friends, how open some parents were with their love for their children. Our relationship wasn’t like that. Criticisms came easier than compliments. Silence filled many rooms. The only time I remember him telling me he loved me was when he was in the hospital bed, days — maybe even hours — before he died.

dad A rare unobstructed view of my dad.

When I started to digitize our home videos, I yearned to find moments I hoped would prove my memories wrong. Initially, I was left disappointed: it’s hard to find moments of intimacy when one person is holding the camera the whole time.

I found one scene with us together. In it, the camera is focused on my face. My dad’s hands are on my cheeks, pulling my skin back. My eyes narrowed, my nose flattened, my mouth widened, I repeat the word “appa” (dad), the sound of the word changing as he caresses his hands around my face to make different expressions. We’re both giggling. I change up the word; now I’m repeating “ja-dong-cha" (car).

Bennett’s documentary Say Something Intelligent is made of similar home video clips. A reoccurring theme in the movie is Bennett’s father, Chris, pointing the camcorder in the face of his family members, asking them to “say something intelligent” on the spot. Like my dad’s tapes, the film gives a glimpse into the life of a family growing up in the Lower Mainland in the 1990s.

When I asked Bennett what it felt like to watch clips of his own family, he said, “Because the time distance was so long, it felt like different people.”

I found myself feeling the same. I had no recollection of this memory — or any others that felt similarly — and it was strange watching my dad and me sharing this small, fun moment. The clip ends, and I was left knowing I’ll never remember what his hands felt like on my face.

In an unexpected scene, however, I feel my dad’s love. A tape labelled “Whistler business trip” is interrupted, and I see my dad’s point of view as he films from the passenger seat of a car. He is talking with whomever is driving. I recognize the other man’s voice: it’s my dad’s friend, who I only knew as Choi ajushi (Mr. Choi). Mr. Choi lived in Vancouver at the time and helped our family with the immigration process to Canada.

The timestamp indicates it’s 1992, the year before our family moved here. My dad continues filming as Mr. Choi explains the geography of Vancouver. I recognize the iconic bricks as they drive through Gastown. They make their way through the Stanley Park Causeway, along the way giving glimpses of a downtown that has changed much since then. They drive into the mountains of North Vancouver, including the neighbourhood where I would eventually grow up.

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They discuss housing prices. My dad asks Mr. Choi about schools in the area. Like he meticulously researched for his work, I realize he is doing the same for his family and our eventual life in Canada.

“I feel like there’s a pure reason why people are shooting home videos,” Bennett said. “The intention behind why someone is making home videos is interesting to me.”

I’ll never get to ask my dad what he intended by filming hours and hours of these videos: that will be just one of hundreds of conversations with him I have in my own head for the rest of my life. But watching the tapes, I see that for all the resentment I held about my dad’s expectations of me, perhaps my expectations of him were equally unfair.

One section of Say Something Intelligent stands out: two boys, including Bennett’s brother Tom, lean over a bird bath. Bennett’s dad, wearing a denim shirt, says, “Look out for the submarine race.”

The boys lean in closer, when suddenly, the dad’s hand smacks down, splashing cold water on the kids.

Tom screams, upset, “Ahh! You a-word!”

Bennett, who sees the film as a document of his childhood and his dad’s parenting style, said, “I knew some people were going to be like, ‘[Your dad] is a jerk.’”

“A few people did comment on that and it made me laugh,” he continued. “But I think parents, they’re making it up and they’re doing their best.”

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I grew up feeling jealous that my dad wasn’t like other Canadian dads, but maybe all I was doing was setting us up for failure by choosing that as the standard. Through these home videos, I got to experience my dad’s own love language: planning our future so we never grew up wanting; documenting our family, through hours of trips, graduations and birthdays, so he would leave behind a legacy of memories.

Perhaps he didn’t tell me he loved me as much as, or in the way, I would have wanted. But maybe I should be more forgiving — these tapes showed me, in the way only my dad could, that he absolutely did.

He was just doing his best, like the rest of us.