What our identity is

Lidiya Kan on Morkovcha (Korean Carrot Salad) and Wendy Cong Zhao’s animation

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Morkovcha (Korean Carrot Salad) director Lidiya Kan on Russian-Korean professor German Kim: “He gave me some readings and some information to help place the personal stories into more of a general history.”
Morkovcha (Korean Carrot Salad) director Lidiya Kan on Russian-Korean professor German Kim: “He gave me some readings and some information to help place the personal stories into more of a general history.”

In the second in a series of DOC NYC conversations with filmmakers from the Hunter College MFA Program in Integrated Media Arts (see Neville Elder on his Anamnesis [Part One]), I discussed with Morkovcha (Korean Carrot Salad) director Lidiya Kan the influence of Les Blank’s 1980 film Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, Russian-Korean cultural history, her meeting on Skype with historian German Kim in Kazakhstan, the use of old photos and the animation of Wendy Cong Zhao for the representation of her memory.

Lidiya Kan with Anne-Katrin Titze: “I work with a great animator and she is also a student, her name is Wendy Cong Zhao. I’m so happy she was available.”
Lidiya Kan with Anne-Katrin Titze: “I work with a great animator and she is also a student, her name is Wendy Cong Zhao. I’m so happy she was available.”

Recipes are means of storytelling and you don’t have to be Marcel Proust to know that our sense of taste can ease time travel. Going back as far as 1863 into the history of Korean migration to Russia, and looking back to as recent an event as her relatives’ last pre-COVID Thanksgiving in New York, Lidiya Kan’s wonderfully vivid short is an ode to personal memory saved and history regained in the context of the Russian-Korean diaspora.

From New York the afternoon following the DOC NYC U: Hunter in-cinema premiere at Cinépolis Chelsea, Lidiya Kan joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Morkovcha (Korean Carrot Salad).

Anne-Katrin Titze: Before we talk about your beautiful film, I’m curious about filmmakers that inspire you, for this film or in general.

Lidiya Kan: I have to mention Les Blank and Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers - that was my guide. Maybe not so much in the topic or approaches, but in the lightness. And of course there’s the food involved. I always kept that movie in mind and even in the process of editing I had to rewatch it one time to get to that lighter state, because the topic, as you know, is very complicated and tragic. I never wanted to make a really sad movie.

AKT: Your film does have that lightness to it. You start with the carrots and then the different threads come in, from history to Covid last year. How were you plotting the structure to combine all those elements from history to family history to recipe?

LK: I love food, so it’s natural for me to place food as a common thread. It’s a very unique dish for us. I don’t know in any other mixed culture there is anything that would be so completely new and associated with that culture only. And the Morkovcha is that kind of salad, is so recognizable, now also outside of the former Soviet Union. It gives a little bit of lightness to the film and the name, the actual salad is just a combination of what our identity is.

Lidiya Kan: “The animation is placed on top of my photographs of the actual places, the rooms where all those events were happening.”
Lidiya Kan: “The animation is placed on top of my photographs of the actual places, the rooms where all those events were happening.”

The Covid part - I planned this film before Covid and there was a trip planned and a slightly different script that involved more people. When all the borders started closing, I had to rethink my whole project and with help of advisors for my IMA, there was a plan B and plan C. Instead of being spread horizontally, the spacial kind of story, it became more of an in-depth story, specifically in my family and looking back at my history and the diaspora that I belong to.

AKT: So the traveling in space was replaced by going back in time. That’s very telling about many people’s experience during the pandemic also, I believe. Is it your voice in the film, talking to your mother?

LK: Yes, the narration in English is my voice and whenever there’s two different voices it’s me and my mother.

AKT: Your film shows how much recipes and food are a part of culture. I teach intensive writing courses at Hunter on fairy tales and storytelling where I ask students to do some research into their family history to find folktales connected to their cultural heritage. I told them about your film, as an example of storytelling that attempts to capture the culture. What did you learn about your family history while making this film?

LK: There was a little bit of new information. I didn’t know much about my family because we never really talk. When my grandparents were alive, we never talked about the history of Koreans. When it came to my grandparents’ generation they were too traumatized and it was too dangerous to speak about events. Then my parents’ generation, they just didn’t think about questioning. It was the Soviet Union; it was a different kind of world.

Lidiya Kan on Morkovcha: “It gives a little bit of lightness to the film and the name, the actual salad is just a combination of what our identity is.”
Lidiya Kan on Morkovcha: “It gives a little bit of lightness to the film and the name, the actual salad is just a combination of what our identity is.”

So by the time I got to the age when I was curious and started to ask questions, a lot of that information was already lost. My grandparents passed away, my parents didn’t know much. It’s really just bits and pieces. It’s kind of like fairy tales. You don’t know if it’s true or something I imagined maybe. That I head something and just added other elements to it. It was interesting to have conversations with my mother and for her to look deeper into her memories and remember something from her childhood. That was interesting to put all those pieces together in more of a factual story and then of course talk to a historian of the Russian-Korean diaspora who was helping me.

AKT: What is the name of the historian?

LK: His name is German Kim. He is Russian-Korean and lives in Kazakhstan, he’s a professor and wrote different books. He studied our history. He was so generous to have a Skype meeting with me and he gave me some readings and some information to help place the personal stories into more of a general history.

AKT: Not many people are aware of that history at all. Did you get that response from classmates or friends that they were surprised?

LK: Exactly, yes, even my family. Even the Russian-Koreans themselves.

AKT: I like how you showed the photoshop work you did on the old photos. You show what you do and connect it to your childhood looking at the photo albums. And of course, there’s the animation. You pack so much into one short film!

Lidiya Kan on Les Blank’s Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers: “I always kept that movie in mind and even in the process of editing …”
Lidiya Kan on Les Blank’s Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers: “I always kept that movie in mind and even in the process of editing …”

LK: Yes, animation! I thought that it would be good to illustrate my memories as animation. Again, it’s not something we have a recording of and aren’t sure if we can rely on it. So the animation is the perfect representation of the memory. I work with a great animator and she is also a student, her name is Wendy Cong Zhao. I’m so happy she was available.

The animation is placed on top of my photographs of the actual places, the rooms where all those events were happening. At least how I remember them happening. I wanted for these characters to be a little out of place; that’s why they’re black-and-white and a little rugged just like a memory would be. The rooms are still the rooms in my grandparents’ house, they look the same as they did 20 years ago. Those animations are some of my favourites.

AKT: It is also a bit of archiving what you are doing. You are holding up a mirror to the past for future generations who will make the recipe and see how family members lived. You describe the recipe for the carrot salad as “affordable, familiar, and easy to make.” Did you write your commentary voiceover afterward, was it parallel?

LK: The film started with a photography project. All these ideas were in my head, the refining of the text was during the editing. But all these thoughts were always floating in my head.

AKT: I hope your film goes on a long journey!

LK: Thank you so much!

DOC NYC 2021 in cinemas (IFC Center - SVA Theatre - Cinépolis Chelsea) ran from November 10 through November 18. Select films are screening online in the US from November 19 through November 28.

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