A Korean Woman in Potterverse: Claudia Kim’s Nagini

Delivered on October 16, 2020 at the Harry Potter Conference of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, PA.

On September 25, 2018, Korean actress Claudia Kim was announced in the role of Nagini for Fantastic Beasts:  Crimes of Grindelwald.  Here is my five-item tweet from the moment I found out:

That was a fun morning.  I couldn’t get enough of the coverage:  Claudia Kim at a press event, saying happily, “I’m Nagini.  I’m blushing!”  Or her Instagram story, where she posted a screenshot of innocent little Neville from Chamber of Secrets with the caption, “Neville!  Ahhhh!” and a scared-face emoji and a snake emoji.  At last, a Korean woman in Potterverse.  I had never counted Cho Chang, even though her name might be Korean, because the writing of that character struck me as generic when I read her on the page:  she could have been any race.  But Nagini, the Maledictus in her human form, would first be brought to life not on the page, but onscreen, with a Korean woman’s experiences informing the actress’s reading of the character, her embodiment and her inflections and her micro-expressions.  

And then I saw some of the backlash against the casting and storyline.  Claims that it was racist, a “disaster,” to cast a Korean woman as a character who, as some people put it, ended up as maybe the pet, the slave, or even the lover of an evil white man.  That the first time a Korean body is represented in the wizarding world, it should not be in a degraded status as a doomed young woman.  That this played into stereotypes of Asian women as subservient, or sexualized, or submissive.  That this character was not exactly a “strong, independent female character.”  I understand many of the criticisms.  For example, that the filmmakers should have found another Indonesian actress to play Nagini, who was written as Indonesian, when their first choice withdrew due to pregnancy.  Or that Rowling could not be trusted to have a solid understanding of naga mythology.  However, whenever I read through this controversy, I find the comments against Claudia Kim’s casting so hurtful, I have to stop.  Many of the objections strike me as unintentionally racist, even if they purportedly call out racism.

And this was all before anyone had seen the movie.

When I finally did see the movie, I liked Nagini in it.  When I saw her two deleted scenes from the DVD, I loved her.

Let’s go through her scenes.

1.  We meet her at the traveling circus, where she’s the featured snake woman, one of the “freaks and underbeings” on exhibit, and Credence cleans the animal cages.  The circusmaster, Skender, exploits Nagini and mistreats Credence.  They’ve plotted to escape together, although Skender tries to keep them apart.  Skender sets up Nagini’s act, telling the audience that she’s “beautiful” and “desirable” but turns into a snake when she sleeps and eventually will be trapped in snake form, and commands her to change shape.  Nagini defies him, making him a laughingstock, and makes eye contact with Credence instead.  Credence releases caged animals into the crowd, Nagini transforms into a snake and bites Skender, and the two of them escape.

2.  Credence has received a tip about his biological mother, so he and Nagini go to look.  Nagini recognizes that Credence is too emotional to speak, so she speaks for him.  But the whole setup is a trap set by Grindelwald, who has sent an assassin to kill the person about to give Credence clues to his own story, as a deliberate ploy to trigger an Obscurus attack in Credence and observe it.  [clip] Nagini senses the camouflaged assassin and tries to fight him, witnesses the Obscurus explosion, then, instead of being afraid, approaches Credence to comfort him afterwards.

3.  She alerts Credence that Grindelwald has come to tell Credence to learn his identity at Père Lachaise cemetery.  The way she glares at Grindelwald, it’s clear that she recognizes him as an exploiter and manipulator.

4.  She goes to Père Lachaise with him and shields him when Yusuf Kama tries to kill him.

5.  She accompanies Credence into Grindelwald’s rally.  She warns Credence, fearfully, “They’re purebloods.  They kill the likes of us for sport.” 

6.  She tries to pull Credence back from joining Grindelwald, saying, “He knows what you were born, not who you are.”

7.  After Credence and others go over to Grindelwald, she joins Kama, Jacob, Tina, the Scamanders, and the Aurors as they report to Dumbledore at Hogwarts.

Looking at her actual character in the movie, I don’t find her to be without agency at all.  She embodies the theme of the Fantastic Beasts series:  that the human attempt to divide living creatures into binary categories as either “beasts” or “beings” does a sort of violence that enables othering, exploitation, and dehumanization.  That this splitting, whether of the natural world, ethnic groups, individual souls, or the atom, is part of what gave rise to World War II.  Yet even in captivity, she defies her captor and becomes one of the few characters in Potterverse to manage their own prison break, which she does by forming a bond of affection with another.  They risk trusting each other and pool resources to resist together; neither of them could have escaped alone.  She relies on her strengths:  yes, she’s caged, but that protects her from the audience touching her.  Yes, she’s a Maledictus, but this means she can transform into a snake who can attack her captor.  And she’s whole enough to form a bond with someone who’s an Obscurial and can unleash destructive power in order to free them.

The screenplay says of Nagini that she “trusts nobody,” but this is not quite true:  she trusts and protects Credence, and we later see hints that she trusts Kama.  She doesn’t have that hardened suspicion that comes of blanket mistrust.  Instead, as the screenplay also says, “Nagini’s senses are hyperalert.  She can smell danger.”  Without any need to go into Maledictus lore, we can recognize this hypervigilance as her natural response to being trafficked and exploited.  The way Claudia Kim plays this alertness feels culturally familiar to me:  she’s always quietly scanning the surroundings, always the first to intuit unspoken dynamics, a skill that Koreans call “nunchi.”  I see it in her microexpressions, her stillness, the sweep of her eyes, her readiness to speak a cautionary word or extend a protective hand.  This isn’t written into the script; it’s just something the actress brings to the role that makes Nagini read Korean to me.

There are times that Rowling gives characters lines to say that lets us, the readers and viewers, know that this is where the real message is:  for example, Dumbledore saying, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”  When Credence is leaving Nagini, he says of Grindelwald, “He knows who I am.”  And Nagini’s last cry to Credence is, “He knows what you were born, not who you are.”  It’s Nagini who delivers the essential message of this series:  listen to the truth in each being, no matter how powerless or how much of a freak or under-being they are.

Nagini’s actual role in the movie doesn’t accord with the backlash I encountered before the movie release.  She isn’t shown as anyone’s sexualized, submissive follower:  that description fits the wealthy white woman, Bellatrix Lestrange, not Nagini.  With the darkly funny reference to “milking” Nagini in Goblet of Fire, Rowling cast her as the twisted parody of a mother figure to Voldemort rather than a lover.  At the time of Crimes of Grindelwald, Tom Riddle is less than a year old and has lost his mother.  We don’t yet know how the two cross paths, but with Nagini’s protectiveness toward the vulnerable, it wouldn’t surprise me if she heard a baby’s cries in Parseltongue and responded.

Nagini has agency.  She has a tragic storyline, yes:  that makes her like half the characters in this universe, like Sirius losing 12 years to wrongful imprisonment or Regulus sacrificing himself as a teen with no guarantee it would work — and that was in the children’s version of this story.  Must the Asian woman character be relentlessly inspirational, even if it’s discordant with the rest of movie?  This series is an international story about the prejudices that led to World War II.  Is the Asian woman somehow not allowed to have a role?

When critics object that simply casting a Korean actress as Nagini is racist, this is what I really hear:

This role should have gone to a white woman for the comfort of viewers who are uneasy with the images in their own heads of Asian women.

What I hear is:  People were happier when there was no Korean woman in Potterverse.  They don’t want us if it makes them feel uncomfortable.

All right, let’s hear it:  What narrative for a Korean woman in 1927 would these critics suggest?  How, exactly, do they want us to be for their approval before we can enter the story?  I’ve had the visceral experience of entering the room as the only Asian woman and feeling waves of disapproval, murmurs that my presence has turned something into a disaster for reasons that have nothing to do with my worth or my performance, with nothing I can do to fix it, only that they didn’t want a Korean woman there.

There’s a different Korean narrative brought to mind by the nationality of this casting choice, though, one that I can’t imagine was intended by Rowling and Yates, who created Nagini as Indonesian.

What was going on in Korea in 1927?  For one thing, there was no Korea.  Korea was brutally colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945, and that included slavery and trafficking of Korean girls on a massive scale.  Japanese schoolteachers were recruited to select victims from Korea’s most established families in a deliberate move to demoralize and destroy the culture, similar to the Lestrange storyline with the Kama family.  This issue was silenced for decades and it remains unresolved and a source of diplomatic conflict between Japan and Korea.  A few of the survivors are still alive.  A lot of them never told their own husbands and children.

I can understand not trusting Rowling and Warner Brothers to portray Korean women during the time before World War II.  However.  It is a destructive trap to hold that it’s somehow wrong or improper to tell in public the stories of women of color who endured slavery and trafficking.  Don’t people who died while enslaved by others deserve to have their stories told?  We’re not the only ones that happened to — not even in this movie series — and the survivors and their younger generations continue to pay the cost, like a blood curse.  Shame and silence only lead to more damage, with the greatest burden on the people who have suffered most already.

When the Crimes of Grindelwald DVD was released, the two beautiful deleted scenes featuring Nagini deepened her story.  I wish the filmmakers had kept them in the film:  putting them in the DVD extras means the fullness of this woman of color’s character was relegated to the margins.  Credence and Nagini are clearly lovers in these scenes.  In one, she encourages him to release his Obscurus peacefully and proves that it can pass through her without harm.  In the other, she is ashamed and sorrowful that the skin on her hand is turning scaly, but Credence sees it and kisses it.

Nagini gives Credence the most affection and acceptance he’s ever experienced.  He sleeps with his arms around her, but we see she has stayed awake the whole time, forgoing rest because she wants to be with him in human form.  She coaches him to control his Obscurus and not be afraid of it, recognizing that it’s a part of him and has its own beauty.  The scene is called “Murmuration,” in keeping with the series theme of birds and flight.  When she has the Obscurus pass through her, she demonstrates that this integral part of Credence is not destructive in itself, that she accepts it, and that she has the strength to know how Credence feels.  Credence reciprocates in the later scene, countering some of her shame and despair about her irreversible loss of humanity, showing his acceptance of her whole self.

Rowling has been working toward the concept of the Maledictus for some time, the blood curse through the female line that strengthens over time.  Draco Malfoy’s wife, Astoria, dies of a blood curse in Cursed Child.  I hope very much that we get to see more of the middle of Nagini’s story.  We know how it ends, and so, to an extent, does she.  But from what we’ve seen, it’s in her nature to meet her destiny as Harry Potter did, knowing “the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high.”

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