▲ Professor Sim talks about the life and the philosophy of a movie therapist. Photographed by Suh Jaehee.
In the essay The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music written by Friedrich Nietzsche, the existence of human beings is defined as an intellectual dichotomy between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, between desire and rationality. To be precise, behind one's logicality, people preserve intrinsic ecstasy, and these private fantasies are what molds human identity, according to Nietzsche. Here, for those who endeavor to balance the two elements of reason and passion, therapists can become guides, helping them to recognize the hidden urges beneath the intellectual self. Sim Yeong Sub considers herself a movie therapist.
From an early age, Sim had many opportunities to watch films from a wide spectrum of genres because both her parents were film enthusiasts. “When I was less than a month old, my mother took me to the theater to watch Cleopatra,” said Sim, “so the growing of my fondness toward movies was only natural.” After graduating from Sogang University, Sim majored psychology in graduate school at Korea University (KU) and merged her studies with her interest in films, consequently pioneering an uncharted domain in film therapy in Korea. She won best critique awards from Cine 21 and served as the second president of the Korea Society for Cinema Image Therapy, gaining nationwide popularity as a movie critic and therapist.
In her cozy office under a warmly illuminated light, Sim explained how movie therapy works. “It basically incorporates psychology and films to allow the patient to express herself by substituting or reflecting one's emotions onto movie characters,” said Sim. Although the therapists use various methods, such as role playing or acting out a scenario while blending one's own experiences into it, the core purpose remains the same—to help clients disclose and face the desires they have been oppressing or distorting.
“Especially in order to reach the abyss of one's consciousness, therapists use the process of mirroring and containing,” said Sim. For those who undergo difficulties in confronting their emotions, the therapists assist them by directly pinpointing feelings such as panic or fear, which is termed mirroring. At the same time, they embrace and console the clients' mentality, which is the process of containing, so that they can find the courage to dig deeper into their psychology.
Although the treatment process might seem identical to other art therapies such as those employing painting or photography, movie therapy has distinctive characteristics. For one, films are moving pictures and are thus related to associative thinking; as the clients gradually begin to sympathize with the characters, the movie can arouse acute memories and feelings quicker than other materials such as art works or books. Furthermore, unlike literary works which require time and effort to read and understand the stories, films have great accessibility and are easily accepted by patients who have low motivation to cure themselves.
For instance, Sim recollected her experience with a man whose brother committed murder. The memory itself was too appalling to bear, and he oppressed the thought, completely erasing the horrifying past. But through movie therapy he was able to reopen his wounded consciousness and accept the truth, finally overcoming the nightmare. Moreover, Sim counseled a patient who was forced into prostitution and was deeply bruised by a somber childhood without a mother who ran away. Nevertheless, the client was greatly inspired by the movie 28 days, starring Sandra Bullock as an alcoholic prostitute; the patient connected the story to her own life experiences and reflected on herself through the protagonist, finding consolation in her melancholy life.
Nonetheless, as rewarding as it is to witness patients overcoming past traumas, movie therapists undergo immense stress as they struggle to communicate with clients who are mostly self-abandoned and desperate. “There comes a time when the patient reaches the inner self and the illusory world that once concealed genuine emotions is shattered to pieces,” said Sim. Although the clients themselves suffer the most, it is also overwhelming for the therapists to stand by their side and behold their pain as they withstand moments of agonizing epiphany.
Thus, to students who want to become movie therapists, Sim advised them not to misunderstand the difference between a film enthusiast and a movie therapist. In order to delve further into the most private corners of one’s mind, extensive knowledge about films is not enough. The therapist must acquire in-depth work experience regarding psychological therapy for genuine communication based on trust and compassion with patients. “Therapy is like climbing Mt. Everest—the clients are the mountaineer, and we the therapists are the sherpas,” explained Sim. Until patients reach the summit and look down into their oppressed memories and desires, their therapists walk along for every step, encouraging and guiding them to arrive at the revelation of true self.
Nowadays, movie therapy is gaining wide popularity; the number of members of the Korea Society for Cinema Image Therapy has grown from hundreds to thousands, and research related to this particular therapy is done in universities. Sim persistently fulfills her duties as a therapist, listening to the stories of various people, from a successful CEO to a melancholic patient, with genuine attentiveness. To those who are curious about human consciousness, and to those who yearn to help others discover their desires and define their identities, life as a movie therapist awaits.