Crafting Stories with Depth: Ilyon Woo on Lessons from Filmmaker Dai Sil Kim Gibson

Embracing Complexity: Lessons in Storytelling from Dai Sil Kim Gibson

When Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ilyon Woo reflects on her career, she often returns to the profound influence of the late filmmaker Dai Sil Kim Gibson. Known for her fearless exploration of complex histories and her infectious zest for life, Dai Sil imparted invaluable lessons on both the craft of storytelling and the art of living.

Dai Sil, a pioneering Korean American filmmaker, was celebrated for her documentaries that delve into often overlooked or misunderstood histories. Her works, such as Sa-I-Gu, which examines the Korean American experience during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and Silence Broken, which tells the harrowing stories of Korean “comfort women” during World War II, are imbued with a deep sense of empathy and justice. For Woo, working with Dai Sil was a transformative experience that reshaped her approach to storytelling.

The Power of Han and Jung

Central to Dai Sil’s storytelling philosophy were the Korean concepts of han and jung. Han is a complex form of grief and enduring sorrow, often understood as a collective emotional and cultural experience. Jung, on the other hand, represents deep emotional bonds and affection, often intertwined with layers of complexity and contradiction.

Woo recalls how Dai Sil’s understanding of han allowed her to capture the profound suffering and resilience of her subjects. “Dai Sil taught me that han is not merely about individual pain but about the collective memory of suffering,” Woo explains. “It’s about how grief can transcend generations and become a part of a community’s identity.”

Equally important was the concept of jung. Dai Sil’s documentaries are not only about the tragedies her subjects endured but also about the deep connections and relationships that sustained them. “Jung is what makes the stories complete,” Woo reflects. “It’s the love, the attachments, and the bonds that persist despite the suffering.”

Seeing Beyond Trauma

One of the most impactful lessons Woo learned from Dai Sil was the importance of seeing her subjects as whole individuals, beyond their trauma. During the making of Silence Broken, Dai Sil would ask the “Halmeonis” (grandmothers) about their lives before the war, before the camps. This approach revealed facets of their identities that were often overshadowed by their traumatic experiences.

“Dai Sil showed me that every person has a rich, multifaceted life,” Woo says. “By focusing not just on their suffering but on their entire story, we honor their full humanity.”

Building Bridges Through Shared Experience

Dai Sil’s ability to find common ground across different cultures and histories also left a lasting impression on Woo. When collaborating with African American filmmaker Charles Burnett on Silence Broken, Dai Sil explained to the skeptical Halmeonis that Burnett’s people, too, had known han. This acknowledgment of shared suffering across cultures created a bridge of understanding and empathy.

“Dai Sil’s words reminded me of the universality of human experiences,” Woo notes. “Recognizing shared pain and resilience can bring people together in powerful ways.”

Ilyon Woo

Applying the Lessons

These lessons have deeply influenced Woo’s own work, including her acclaimed book Master Slave Husband Wife. In telling the story of Ellen and William Craft, enslaved people who made a daring escape to freedom, Woo was guided by Dai Sil’s principles. She sought to portray the Crafts not just as symbols of suffering but as complex individuals with rich inner lives and relationships.

“I wanted to capture their han—their enduring pain—but also their jung,” Woo says. “Their love for each other and their determination to stay together was as much a part of their story as their escape from slavery.”

A Legacy of Courage and Compassion

Dai Sil Kim Gibson’s legacy is one of courage, compassion, and an unwavering commitment to truth. Her willingness to confront difficult histories and her ability to find humanity in every story continue to inspire Woo and countless others.

“Dai Sil taught me that the best stories are those that embrace complexity,” Woo concludes. “They are the ones that acknowledge both the pain and the beauty of the human experience.”

As Woo continues her literary journey, the lessons from Dai Sil Kim Gibson remain a guiding light, reminding her always to honor the full spectrum of human life in her storytelling.

Ilyon Woo is the author of The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times and Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom. She has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and holds degrees from Yale College and Columbia University.

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