“Stick to your sister.” If that line of parental counsel is as consistently ignored as the Maginot forts, So Yong Kim’s aching coming-of-age story, Treeless Mountain, lends it a deeper, more heartrending resonance. As it happens, the four-word order is spoken by the single mother of 6-year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and 4-year-old Bin (Song Hee Kim) as she leaves her adorable ones with their provincial aunt and buses off to find their estranged father.
Moving from hustle-bustle Seoul to its sleepy outskirts, the now-inseparable sisters busy themselves with household chores and the occasional social call to the boy next door, whose mother spoils them with platefuls of sweets. Their Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim), as she’s addressed, is revealed to be a neglectful alcoholic — a bad habit that manifests itself in missed meals for the two youths. Fortunately, the pair proves to be self-reliant and entrepreneurial, as only hardknock kids manage to be. Yet this resourcefulness also emerges as the side-effect of a diversion: their humdrum days are measured in relation to the coin level in a plastic piggy bank, which, once filled, promises their mother’s return — or so they steadfastly believe. To expedite the process, they begin peddling grilled grasshoppers to other children. Later, in a scene of simple, unsentimental desperation, they exchange their larger denominations for smaller, space-filling ones — in their elementary logic, the clattering coins no longer register as monetary units, but as moments to be counted off before the longed-for homecoming.
Throughout these quotidian routines, Kim’s clear-eyed, Super 16 camera remains affixed to the tyke’s expressive faces, as artless reactions — blinking disbelief, unbridled joy, embarrassment — flicker and pass across them. This intimate, in-their-face persistence — the film opens with Jin’s wide-eye visage obstructing the view of the background, her teacher’s voice and person reduced to an alien, offscreen presence — also exquisitely captures their limited perspective, which slowly expands to rival Jin’s involuntary maturation. Punctuating these patiently-observed verité sequences is a battery of painterly, nature-based interludes, which furnishes the film’s elemental beauty and allows it to formally breathe between the all-in episodes.
Above all else, Treeless Mountain is a testament to the children’s resolve to endure, come what may in this soulful story. Near the film’s end at Jin and Bin’s grandparents farm in Hunghae (which is close to the director’s own childhood home), Kim stages a transcendent moment where the girls turn their heartache and loss into a simple gesture of sacrifice and unadulterated compassion. After the feature-length onslaught of unfortunate news, it’s a perfect life-marches-on restorative, on par with the best instances in the realist oeuvre.
But Kim’s virtuosity with minor-key portraits should come as no surprise; she circled her name as a talent to tab back in 2006 with her autobiographic, penetrative and exceedingly poignant coming-to-America debut, In Between Days. More recently, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott lassoed her into his “neo-neorealist” collective along with filmmakers like Ramin Bahrani and Kelly Reichardt. We sat down with the animated, in-demand director last week to delve deeper into her acclaimed follow-up.
Flavorwire: The story for Treeless Mountain originated as a short story. Describe that original version and how you developed it into this remarkably spare, near-wordless narrative?
So Yong Kim: I was taking this creative writing class because I wanted to improve my writing. The first story I wrote was about these two sisters who are catching grasshoppers and selling them to the town kids. Then, I did a sketch for the story: this treeless mountain with two girls on top. That has always stayed as the title. After the class, I kept writing these moments from my childhood that I remembered from growing up with my grandmother. Or just moments with my sister when we were arguing on bus trips. I collected these short stories and put them together into a script. I think I got the first draft done by the end of 2005, but it wasn’t until 2006, or so, that I thought, “Maybe I could make it into a film.”
FW: So, before In Between Days?
SYK: Kind of, yeah. But In Between Days was a lot more manageable — there were no expectations for that film. I just wanted to experiment with shooting on video. I mean, I went through the writing process for In Between Days, all those things associated with narrative films. But after we shot the film, I still felt there was no pressure for it to be a narrative film — it could have been anything.
FW: Because you were new to the film world?
SYK: Yeah! It was so great, in that sense. It could have been a ten-minute short film if I didn’t have good enough stuff.
FW: Well, things certainly worked out for the best. How long did Treeless Mountain actually take to shoot and edit?
SYK: The casting took the longest — we were at elementary schools and kindergartens until the last two weeks before shooting — and that made the shooting schedule pretty tight. We shot for 29 days, then I edited for 4 months straight. That includes sound editing, because my voice was all over the audio track [she talked to the girls during each take]. Since it was shot on Super 16, I also had to sync all the material and subtitle all the footage. It wasn’t that fun for awhile.
FW: It is what it is.
SYK: It is what it is. I’m done and I’m happy.
FW: Autobiography obviously shades your films, but the personal context of each situation is shrouded by the universal, empathetic nature of their plight. Still, I’m interested in your return to Korea, a land that you left during your formative years. Can you describe that experience and its effect on your filmmaking?
SYK: Knowing what I know now, I think I would have tried a little bit harder to talk myself out of it. [laughs] Not that it wasn’t an amazing experience. When I first started to collect these stories, it was always set in Korea. So I had to back to Korea to shoot this film. It was non-negotiable. Whereas In Between Days was set in L.A. when I first wrote the script, but changed to Toronto because I felt, when we were location scouting, that Toronto was a better fit for the story and made for a better film. With Treeless, the setting was always in my hometown because I knew that location so well and felt really connected to it. So we went back in September to start production and spent a lot of time in Seoul, which I don’t know very well. Just the amount of culture shock I had to go through was tough. Not only that, our crew was 50 percent Korean, 50 percent American. There’s a huge cultural gap. Not gap, necessarily, but….
FW: Language barrier? Speaking of which, how good is your Korean?
SYK: My Korean is like a 7-year-old Korean’s language level. I could totally get by though. Until we found an assistant who was bilingual, I actually had to do a lot of the translation between our producers and the Korean crew. But, the shooting of the film was very smooth, considering all the things that could have happened. I think it was because we had a fantastic line producer in Korea — he was so detailed and meticulous. I’m so thankful for him. But shooting in my hometown, it was great. [laughs] We were in Seoul the first five days of the shoot, then everybody took the bus over to the countryside. Once we were in that location, everyone just relaxed because all the people from Seoul didn’t know that place, all the Americans didn’t know that place. The air was beautiful, non-polluted. People woke up in the morning and walked to work. We were there for like 22 days or something and everyone got kind of fat. [laughs] Not fat, but it was just a completely different pace of life, completely different than Seoul.
FW: What was the local response?
SYK: Wonderful. There was a restaurant that fed all of us lunch, sometimes breakfast. They were really open. We even cast local people for the film.
FW: Like the grandmother?
SYK: Yes, the grandmother and the grandfather. The restaurant owner was also local.
FW: Like In Between Days, the interludes in the film are breathtaking and wondrous. Were they storyboarded or stumbled upon?
SYK: I didn’t write those into Treeless because I felt like I was repeating myself stylistically from In Between Days. But when I got to Seoul, I knew that I should collect these images because I might need to use them.
FW: Your camera is as intimate as any in cinema, reaching an uncomfortable familiarity with the characters through its constant focus. Why do you opt for this personalized style?
SYK: For these two particular stories, it was important to be present with them. You want to be in their space. So I really wanted the camera to be at the same eye-level as the kids. And also, I always wanted to get their coverage on close-ups first. If we had time, then we went to wider shots. In In Between Days, Jiseon’s face is amazing. She’s got this wide, moon face. It’s expressive, innocent, but also really mature — she has this range. For these two girls, they’re so young and they have no filter. As you get older, I think you build these society mannerisms or filters to shut down what you are really feeling. But with these kids, they’re so innocent and pure, everything they feel comes straight to their face. I felt like it was important to be with them so that you’re not passing judgment.
FW: It’s a very interactive style, because, while you know what they’re thinking through their particular circumstances, you also project your own thoughts and feelings onto this onscreen avatar.
SYK: Exactly! I think the interpretation of the story has a lot to do with what kind of person you are and how much you can fill in those missing blanks.
FW: Hee-Yeon Kim’s performance as Jin is as powerful as Ana Torrent’s turn in another classic about childhood and unexpected maturation, Spirit of the Beehive. How was it working with the two non-professional children and how did you coax such heartrending performances? Did being a new mother help shape your relationship?
SYK: It really did — it made me very protective and also sensitive to what they needed. If I wasn’t a mom, I don’t think I would have that understanding of what they might be feeling. Because I was so attuned to what my daughter was lacking, the different senses that open up once you become a mother. It also really grounded me, gave me a sense that I have to make this film now or it might not happen later. It just seemed like all the stars were aligning for this film to happen at that moment.
FW: The great South Korean director Lee Chang Dong endorsed the two actresses (Soo Ah Lee ad Mi Hyang Kim) who play mother and Big Aunt. How’d that happen?
SYK: Yeah!!! He’s so great. We were really fortunate to have access to his office because we know Hannah Lee, who produced Secret Sunshine. They were so generous. They allowed us to use part of their office during our pre-production and, one night, we were having a meeting there late when director Lee came by. And he was like, “Come over here, let’s have a talk.” Okay. Then he was like, “What do you need?” And I was, [her voice warps into a tremulous affectation], “I have to cast these two actresses…I don’t know.” And he was like, “What kind of people are they?” And I explained to the best of my ability, as a 7-year-old Korean, “Well, the aunt is an alcoholic and she needs to have this accent and…” So he pulled out his address book [mock browsing]. Then he took out his cell phone [mock dialing]. He made the phone calls right in front of me, just like that. He’s like the Godfather.
FW: Where did you discover that wonderful ballad that Jin and Bin belt at the end?
SYK: It’s a Grandaddy song! “Nature’s Anthem.” I used that song when I was writing the script to give me a boost whenever I felt down. It was like a cheerleading song, you know. Every time I listened to it, I thought, “You can do it, you can do it…”
So Yong Kim will be at the Apple Store SoHo with Bradley Rust Gray and Ti West as part of Apple and indieWIRE’s Meet the Filmmakers series. More on that here.