Jihyun Paik: A Champion of Community

As a creative, an academic, and an advocate, Jihyun Paik embodies the spirit of community at Amherst. Her journey from a spontaneous love for film to a thoughtful exploration of Asian American identity exemplifies her passion for creating connections both on and off campus.

Jihyun Paik: A Champion of Community
Jihyun Paik ’26 has used her love for film to explore Asian American identity, and curated a film program for her thesis. Photo courtesy of Claire Beougher ’26.

When I spoke to Jihyun Paik ’24’s friends and professors, a word that came up time and time again was “community.”

Professor Pooja Rangan described Paik as “community-minded, committed to sustaining communities and spaces to interact with the world and each other.”

Professor Josh Guilford explained that Paik is “really dedicated to her work, and is committed to working in ways that support and contribute meaningfully to the different communities in which she participates.”

And close friend Kendall Levine ’24E expressed that Paik “holds strong relationships with those she shares community with and actively finds ways to support them.”

So, it comes as no surprise that, when asked to reflect on her time at Amherst, Paik jumped to speak about her involvement in campus communities — both creative communities and Asian American communities. Her active engagement with the film and media studies (FAMS) department, creative writing groups, and the Asian American community — at Amherst and beyond — serves as a testament to her dedication to fostering collaborative spaces.

Finding Film

Paik’s academic study of film came somewhat serendipitously. She did not arrive at Amherst with a clear vision of her future. Like many of her peers, the onset of the pandemic during her senior year of high school had significantly disrupted her life; transitioning to fully online classes left her with an abundance of free time.

So, she started watching movies.

Limited by quarantine restrictions, Paik spent the summer after graduating high school delving into the world of cinema. When it came time to choose classes for her first semester at Amherst, she enrolled in Film and Writing as a way to explore her newfound love of film. This first FAMS course opened her eyes to the joy of watching, discussing, and writing about films, providing her with a newfound appreciation for the medium’s artistic and communicative potential. The next semester, she took a course on silent cinema, and she was officially hooked. She decided to major in FAMS shortly thereafter.

Today, Paik is the driving force of the FAMS Student Steering Committee, a co-recipient of the film and media studies prize, and has been recommended for a summa designation by the FAMS department.

Paik is a FAMS and art history double major who considers herself a “visual arts kind of person.” Professor Nicola Courtright affirmed this characterization, describing Paik as “a very visual person and a deep thinker — someone who has insights into visual language that even mature art historians don’t have.”

Thinking Thesis

For her senior thesis, Paik wanted to explore two deeply personal topics — experimental film and her Asian American identity. Yet, she had never found classes about the intersection of these topics and wondered if the combination even existed. So, within this narrow search window, she started watching every film she could find. This resulted in a thesis with both creative and critical components, where she investigated themes like the racialization of bodies, sexuality, gender expression, and the collective memory of Asian American communities.

Paik’s research gravitated toward two major topics, which developed into two critical chapters. The first explored the bodily experiences and societal perceptions of Asian Americans, examining how these factors intersect with concepts of beauty, gender, and racial identity. She asked, what does it mean to have a body that is not part of the white majority, and what experiences come from that?

The second focused on memory and history, particularly how collective memories and familial narratives shape the political and social identities of Asian Americans. Here, Paik studied films that talk about relationships within families — particularly mother-daughter relationships — how they carry grief and guilt, and how this forms the memory of a bigger collective.

Collaborative Curating

With her critical chapters completed, Paik turned to the creative component. Though originally planning to produce her own experimental short film, her thesis advisor Professor Rangan and other members of the FAMS faculty gave her another idea — to curate a film program.

At first, Paik was not very open to the idea; yet, after thinking it over, she realized that a video project didn’t really align with the intentions of her thesis. Paik describes herself as “very independent when it comes to making films,” and, therefore, it didn’t seem very true to what she wanted to present in terms of community.

When writing her first two chapters, Paik looked largely at filmmakers who were all independent artists, yet were in constant contact with each other. She wanted this sense of community to really show through her work, so she decided to select a couple of films, put it under a thematic framework, and present it to an audience. This curated program, titled “To See the Echos: A Lineage of Asian American Experimental Cinema,” was a collective effort, and working with other people spoke to that sense of community she was aiming for.

For instance, when she needed publicity materials, Paik wanted to collaborate with an artist on campus. She sent out a Google Form in the Daily Mammoth and found Christine Park ’26, a fellow student who crafted an oil painting that became the face of the event’s publicity materials like posters and fliers.

Rangan described curating as “a really complex process that involves administrative components, distributors, archives, and artists, with work that goes into planning the program, scheduling the venue, and publicity.” When Paik secured funding early on to ensure that everyone she showcased was compensated, Rangan was impressed with her “careful attention to detail.”

Guilford thinks of “her interest in curating as an extension of her commitment [to community].” Paik explained that sharing films with an audience was a collective experience that “added so much life to a project that already had life on its own.” With the program, Paik’s thesis came into fruition beyond the pages and words. It allowed her to talk about her project with a wider audience, beyond advising meetings. The program essentially acted as Paik’s third and final thesis chapter.

Courtright, who attended Paik’s program, was struck by her artistic eye. “Her curation of evocative short films brought to the fore the visual and thematic relationship between them,” she said. It was about “major issues such as the inexorable passage of time,” which made it “hard to comprehend owing to our frustratingly fragmentary memory, the instability of our dreams about the past, and the evanescent and uncomprehending qualities of language.”

Investing in Intuition

Paik ultimately analyzed a total of eleven films — six in her critical chapters, with five additional films shown in her program. She described her process of selecting films as “very, very intuitive,” as she chose films based on what she gravitated towards. She explained that “some films felt like they wanted to be written about.” Rangan described Paik’s process as about “experience, expression, and experiment.”

Her favorite was “Duality Duplicity” by Janice Tanaka, a seven minute film about a mother-daughter relationship. Paik explained that the film explores what it means to be an Asian American woman navigating a relationship with your mother. She describes it as poetic, delicate, and intimate — “I thought, ‘I would like to make something like this.’”

Ten minutes before her thesis deadline, Paik needed a title. She reflected on all of the differences that came through in her exploration of Asian American experimental film. She thought about how there were so many different things to write about, so many different ways artists use experimental film, so many different stories and topics that make each story so unique — but everything also comes together in strange ways.

She decided to call her work “Assemblaged Relations: Hybridities and Intersections in Asian American Experimental Cinema.”

“All those differences coupled with the topic of community made me land on this word of ‘relationality,’ which I wrote about in my conclusion,” said Paik. She explained that, to her, relationality “is the fact that we’re all connected together in sometimes obvious ways, sometimes unforeseen ways. All our experiences and our stories are influenced by our relationships, not only with people but with society, with bigger powers like the law, or like history. So, I think that’s what felt most pressing to me by the time I finished writing.”

Paik also felt she learned a lot about being Asian American herself. She explained that within the Asian American community, “we connect and we bond over certain things, but despite that we still have our differences that make us very unique. I learned a lot about Asian American experimental film, but it also just made me reconsider what it means to be Asian American and what it means to use this label to describe my identity.”

Exploring English

Paik explained that she’s drawn to experimental film because “the meaning isn’t clear and sometimes it’s frustrating. But then you keep watching it and kind of find meaning between the lines, as you would do with poetry.”

Paik’s go-to creative outlet is writing. Guilford wrote that “Jihyun is an exceptionally gifted writer who somehow manages to combine rigorous critical analysis with highly engaging and evocative prose. Her writing shows a rare ability to synthesize complex theoretical concepts and apply them to the analysis of concrete objects, like films or film programs. But her writing is also an absolute pleasure to read. It brims with poetic turns of phrase and constantly rewards readers with genuinely brilliant, original insights.”

Rangan explained that Paik “is good at everything that she tries. A very, very talented person that, combined with her dedication and commitment as a person and a writer, makes a formidable contribution.”

Because she learned it as a second language, Paik describes her relationship with English as “troubled and salty,” as her learning process was rough. She is proud of what she can do with English now, but also becomes frustrated with it. So she uses creative writing — especially poetry — as a way to work through that frustration.

Paik has written several pieces for The Indicator throughout her time at Amherst. When writing poetry, she gravitates towards topics of language. As with film, she enjoys experimentation, and she likes when a poem can challenge the way we think about language.

“[Poetry]doesn’t have to make super clear sense in a way that a research paper has to. … Sometimes it’s okay if ideas aren’t fully formed or I can’t find the words for an idea,” Paik said. “Exploring it creatively rather than trying to find the precise and accurate words to make an idea super crystal clear is really comforting, and it’s also very generative to dwell in those uncertainties.”

Asian American Advocacy

Paik has also been very involved in the Asian American community at Amherst, working with the Asian and Pacific American Action Committee (APAAC) and getting involved in their movement for an AAPI Studies major. She also lived in the Amherst Asian Cultural House (ACH) for two years.

Through her involvement with APAAC, Paik was able to connect with both her fellow Amherst students and alumni. She learned about the history and legacy of Asian American students at Amherst, which made her feel like she was involved in something bigger than her four years here. She felt as if she was contributing to a “lineage of activism.”

Paik also sought to take as many Asian American studies classes as possible during her time at Amherst, which are continuing to increase. She explained that she would seek out faculty that are part of the Asian American community in an attempt to explore her identity and community academically.

Paik and the Asian Cinevision team at the Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) in New York City last summer, where she worked as a production assistant. Photo courtesy of Jihyun Paik ’24.

Broadening Boundaries

Beyond Amherst, Paik continues to engage with both film and Asian American communities. She volunteers at Asian CineVision, a non-profit arts organization in New York that hosts the Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF). Through working at AAIFF, Paik was introduced to a network of individuals passionate about Asian American cinema, further immersing her into the Asian American film community. Her work with Asian CineVision transformed Asian American film from a mere idea into something actionable.

Paik has also held several internships that provided her with practical experiences in the arts sector. The summer after her sophomore year, she worked at World Records, a peer reviewed academic journal on documentary film and related topics. There, she helped edit articles and worked in online publishing.

The following summer, in addition to volunteering at Asian CineVision, Paik interned at White Box, a community driven nonprofit art space that showcases artists’ work. The space has a social awareness to its works, as it tends to focus more on artists from underrepresented backgrounds and is very involved in its local community. There, Paik worked with the main director and creative director, helped put up installations for exhibitions, worked in budgeting and event planning, and learned about what it means to run an arts institution.

Future Focus

Paik has since realized that, after graduation, she wants to pursue programming and curating in arts organizations. With encouragement from FAMS faculty like Professor Guilford, she hopes to take her thesis program outside of Amherst and to collaborate with galleries or screening venues to showcase her works again. Professor Rangan is sure her thesis work will “live on in the world — a research for posterity.”

When looking back on her time at Amherst, Paik emphasized, more than anything, the impact of her participation in communities on campus. She appreciated “just going to events, talking with the people who are running the events, trying to find people to work with or talk with” about creative processes, shared identities, or otherwise.

Paik said, “having those conversations and creating spaces for those conversations to happen has been something that aligns with what I have in mind for the future and has been something that has made my experience here very fruitful.”

Beyond her contributions to Amherst’s organized communities, Paik has been a great addition to the Amherst community as a whole. “She is an excellent listener — very patient — and offers me her honest opinions with love and respect,” Levine said. “She is always eager for feedback and looking to improve. She is reflective and socially aware of how her words and actions may impact others, and in that, is one of the most caring individuals that I know. If you ask about her on campus, you will probably hear that she is very well dressed, soft spoken, funny, and very, very kind.”

I think Professor Courtright summed it up perfectly when she exclaimed, “I will miss her!”