Editor’s Note: “REEL AAPI” is our annual celebration of the talented Asian American Pacific Islanders in the worlds of advertising, film, TV, music, radio and media. Through their contributions and creativity they are making a difference on a daily basis. This list includes talented directors like Iris Kim.
Korean-Canadian director Iris Kim refers to herself as an Internet Kid with too many stories to tell and too little time to share them.
If what made her initially appealing was her self-proclaimed loud perspective and vibrant dreamlike aesthetic that harkens back on the female gaze of her generation, what’s made her the up-and-coming director to watch right now is the way she continues to evolve that vision for bigger and bigger gigs in the worlds of fashion, music, and advertising.
As a recipient of the Prism Prize Lipsett Award, Iris has been celebrated for her unique approach to music video art. She uses her youth, femininity, and the nuances of her identity to portray emotionally complex subjects in often transient moments that hint at a larger narrative.
She embraces being a fervent observer of her surroundings and identifies greatness as being connected with others. This has resulted in a vibrant approach to storytelling that manifests itself in colorful narratives and louder-than-life visuals. Iris is repped by Los Angeles-based creative studio SixTwentySix.
Let’s meet Iris.
How did you get into the film/music/entertainment/creative industry?
I got into this industry by making music videos for friends in Toronto. It was a fun and budget-safe way to direct and a good play place to mess up, meet new people and test different styles. Before that, I was making my own short films while in school using the faculty’s equipment saying it was for a class. I was having lots of fun.
Who were your mentors?
I have a lot of people I look up to that started in Toronto – Rosanna Peng, Ryan Bobkin, Justin Lee, Carina Mak… I reach out to them when I have questions. Ryan and I went to school together and since graduating, we’ve agreed that he’s my manager since he knows everything going on with me, career-wise. He’s the one that nudges me about new drafts for scripts, advice on how to respond to emails, key points for coffee meetings. It’s always nice having a work therapist.
It’s been said that sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Do you have a story about a small mistake you made when you were first starting and the lesson you learned from it?
I used to never take a rate starting off and I would never really question it since it all went to the budget. But after a while I thought, I feel like I’m doing waaaay too much work to not be getting paid to do this. And the worst part was that I would feel bad about it. I had to remember it was a job and not a month-long commitment I just enjoyed doing.
There’s this undying excitement you have when you start out that is so special, but I had to be careful to not let it burn out or grow me into this cynical person. So, changing the way I approached my rate was a solution to that.
Do you believe more Americans are now finding more acceptance for the AAPI community because of films, TV and other mediums? Do the arts play a role in acceptance and equity?
For sure! I think there’s a larger space carved out for AAPI now more than ever. There have been so many movies with Asian leads or as key creative crew and they’re all widely celebrated. This exposure has really allowed us to have the opportunity to show people what we could do, what kind of stories we want to share and basically just who we are in many different facets.
I think this level of exposure allows our experiences to be normalized, which results in acceptance and equity. It’s not perfect, but it’s getting there.
How would you improve AAPI visibility in your craft?
In my case, I try to put as much AAPI on-screen talent as I can, and then anyone that I can bring on as crew that fits the project as well.
What’s one challenge you occasionally or regularly face in your job?
It’s a common one – because of budget/timing purposes, I’m not able to pursue my ideas to the fullest for certain projects. We often have to take creative shortcuts and sometimes because of that, they fall flat.
I’m not particularly hard on myself for it though, it’s one of those things that people say will change with time, which I fully believe. I think every project is a stepping stone and without the music videos I’ve done in the beginning of my career, I wouldn’t understand the importance of being adaptable.
How did your friends and family react when you chose your career path?
A lot of my friends told me it made sense, which was nice. My family believed in me, but it took some convincing in the beginning. After some point in high school, they knew I wasn’t going to be a doctor or lawyer, so I think they thought to themselves “She clearly likes this, let’s see where this goes.”
A common reaction I got was not to put all my eggs in one basket. And it’s true – expanding your horizons, trying different things and keeping your options open are always great and I always kept that in mind going into this field. But, and I know it’s super cliché, I always just felt a pull towards this career and didn’t really feel like it was a wrong choice at all. And if it failed, then I would find something else.
At least I tried.
What are the biggest questions you have been asked about your race or ethnicity?
I get a lot. People always ask if I’m Chinese and then start speaking Chinese to me. Once I tell people I’m Korean, they ask me if I’m from the North or South, which is, by the way, so overdone. I don’t even pretend to laugh anymore.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what job would you like to have?
It’d still very much be within the realm of what I do now. Most likely something in advertising – a copywriter or creative director for a brand. I love the idea of building something and sharing it with people. I like when there is a clear vision and a well-executed plan.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Awh, to stick it out and stop trying to fit in so much.