This transcript has been edited for clarity.
There’s a scene in 21-year-old Thomas Kim’s short film “Si” where the eponymous main character is in a car with his baseball teammates. Another car cuts them off, and Si’s teammates start yelling and cursing at the driver, speeding up to swerve in front of the car as a joke.
Si is yelling too until he realizes the driver is, like him, Asian American. She’s a mother with her child in the car. Si, a Korean American teenager adopted by white parents as a child, pauses and looks directly into the camera. It’s a moment of realization, a scene loosely inspired by Kim’s high school life in Concord.
From “Don’t Look Up” to “Free Guy,” Massachusetts has been cranking out blockbusters and flops alike in recent years. Behind those big-budget films, smaller but still high-quality movies are coming from the state’s emerging filmmakers.
Kim was born in Korea. His family emigrated to Georgia before moving to Concord when he was a kid, where he learned to make movies.
“In middle school, I’ll be honest, I didn’t have that many friends, so I found a DSLR, a little Canon camera, in my parents’ closet when we moved up from Georgia. And I just started taking pictures,” he said.
As a freshman at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School, he tried to sign up for a photography class. It was full, so it took filmmaking instead.
“I thought it was [about] analog film,” Kim said. “And then, you know, that’s when the ball started rolling. I was like ‘Oh, this is an interesting medium.'”
Kim started working on a stop-motion short film, “TREJUR,” about a woman’s relationship with her wretched, toy-giving grandmother.
“I didn’t know anyone freshman year in high school. I didn’t have any money. [But] with stop motion animation, I could do the whole thing by myself,” he said.
“TREJUR” became an official selection at the Busan International Short Film Festival in 2019 and won gold at the Youngarts Cinematic Arts Festival. It was also part of Kim’s application to the University of Southern California, the school he now attends.
His senior year, Kim got some of his classmates together and shot “Si.” It was inspired by Kim’s friend, who like him is Korean American, but unlike Kim, was adopted by white parents.
“Growing up in middle school [and] high school, we never really talked because there are so few Asian Americans in Concord,” Kim said. “I think there is this thing any sort of foreigner, any sort of Asian American, experiences when we’re growing up in this country, where we feel like we don’t want to associate with people of the same culture or color as you . It’s in fear of tainting your own image, especially in a place that’s very non-diverse, I think.”
The short film’s pivotal moment when Si looks right into Kim’s camera was inspired by the Academy Award-winning film “Moonlight.” Director Barry Jenkins employed a similar method to connect with audiences.
“I think that really does something interesting psychologically,” Kim said. “Barry Jenkins says that with ‘Moonlight,’ sometimes that was the first time an audience was able to look directly into a Black woman’s eyes. And I think that may be true. There’s something that really connects in the eyes. I think [they’re] literally the window into the soul. And so when this main character looks into the camera, essentially they’re looking at us, you know, and putting us literally into his shoes.”
“Si” was available for a time on HBO Max and his film “Busan, 1999” qualified for the 2023 Oscars. Now, Kim is turning “Si” into a feature film called “Isle Child.” He wrote a script in the mid-2020 COVID lockdown and is now seeking financing, partly though crowd-funding.
“The total budget is $700,000, which is, like, nothing in the film industry,” Kim said. “It’s literally micro-budget, but it’s still something that you have to raise. Finding $700,000 is not an easy task.”
Most Hollywood films are still written by, directed by and star white actors, according to a 2021 survey by UCLA researchers. But the same survey found that movies starring actors of color had the highest online viewing ratings in audiences 18 to 49 years old.
“Hollywood is changing,” Kim said. “There is a big cultural shift for these more diverse stories. [In] a more capitalistic sense, diversity sells, and I’m going to leverage that if I can,” he said, alluding to the survey.
Kim said he’s not interested in creating multi-million dollar blockbusters right now.
“The film that I’m trying to make is so small in scale,” he said. “We’ll see how the audiences receive it when it releases in theaters or whatnot.”