A scene from “Treeless Mountain,” which features two non-professional children / Courtesy of CJ Entertainment
Director Kim So-yong has only two feature films under her belt, but both works have already hot-wired the international film festival circuit, including the Pusan (Busan), Berlinale and Sundance events, and picked up prizes along the way.
Her second piece, "Treeless Mountain,'' coming to theaters here Aug. 27, is another autobiographical piece about growing pains. Existential struggles, family crises and raw human emotions speak across different languages and cultures ― so it is no mystery why Kim's films are so well received near and far.
"I wanted to understand more about what happened when I was young. People do it differently; some people see a therapist or write. I tell a story through characters,'' Kim told The Korea Times in an interview, Tuesday, in Seoul.
Kim's first work, "In Between Days,'' delves into her experience as an immigrant teenager adapting to her new American home, while "Treeless'' goes further back into her childhood days.
"'In Between Days' didn't take long to write because as teenagers we all go through the same existential crisis and question whether `I am an adult.' But `Treeless' was a long process. I wanted to make this film before `In Between Days,' but I didn't feel ready yet. Childhood days are more intense. It's very personal and you start forming your own sense of self, of `I am a person,''' she said.
Kim was born in Busan. Her grandmother raised her there for a while before she and her sister were able to join their mother in the United States. "Treeless'' is dedicated to her grandmother.
The movie is about seven-year-old Jin and her four-year-old sister Bin, who are left in the care of an alcoholic aunt while their mother searches for their missing father. They wait for their mother in earnest while busily filling the piggy bank she gave them. But the mother does not keep her promise to return once the piggy bank is full, and Jin and Bin are again forced to move, this time to their grandparents' house.
It was the strong autobiographical nature of the film that made her wait to make it ― she had to separate herself from it. "That's when I know when a script is ready. It's intimate and personal when you write it, but it's not ready if I can't give it its own life,'' she said. "I knew that Jin was not like me, and that Bin was not like my sister. I had to find my actors,'' she said.
What differentiates her works is that they aren't simple mirrors of memory. They may have been inspired by individual experiences and be products of a certain heritage and culture, but ultimately they become something new.
This is achieved through Kim's unique audiovisual language ― telling a story by extracting raw emotions from non-professional actors, capturing spatial relationships within the frame and forgoing superfluous background music to set the mood.
In her 2007 interview about ``In Between Days,'' she asked The Korea Times to print a notice seeking two non-actors for "Treeless.'' She visited one school after another and auditioned numerous children, but when she saw Kim Hee-yeon (Jin) and Kim Song-hee (Bin), she knew right away that she had found the right children.
"Hee-yeon is very straightforward and direct, and she even corrected my Korean. But I thought she was too pretty. Amy (from `In Between Days') is not very pretty but she is very compelling and her face reflects everything. I doubted whether Hee-yeon had the charisma,'' she said. But she gained confidence in her judgment thanks to her husband, producer and fellow director Bradley Rust Gray.
Kim first met Song-hee through photographs. "I saw a close-up picture of her smiling and another of her in a group. She was super interesting, and almost looked like an old lady ― her soul has a certain gravity,'' she said.
But Kim hesitated. Song-hee was an orphan under foster care, and Kim worried about the emotional and psychological impact of having to play a character that is abandoned by her mother. ``But everyone, including the head of the orphanage, was positive about it, saying it would be a great chance for the child to build confidence and feel a sense of achievement,'' she said.
She would tell the children the lines before shooting each scene. ``The process was similar to `In Between Days' but I had to simplify and analyze everything I had to explain before giving directions. It made me much more efficient. You become analytical as you get older but these kids just accepted it,'' she said.
But the children weren't simply like parrots; Kim kept the camera rolling ― even though the budget was doubling with the use of so much film ― so that the children could make the lines their own and act like themselves. She used a lot of close-up shots of the children's faces and created a very limited frame to reflect the frustrations of the characters.
She needed professional actors for the adult roles ― Kim Mi-hyang (``Secret Sunshine'') as the aunt, and strong screen persona Lee Su-a (``Poison'') as the mother. ``I needed them to set the mood for scenes in order for the kids to react,'' she said.
The result was something like a documentary ― natural and utterly believable, with the viewer feeling everything through the gestures of the children.
``I didn't intend that, but it's a great compliment. I had people in Berlin or the United States get angry and ask, why don't Korean social workers come and take care of the kids, and I had to explain that this was fiction,'' she said.
Did the director relive her memories while shooting in her hometown? "I was just immersed in my work, and busy taking care of Sky,'' she said, referring to her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.
"Everything was the same, and I did reconnect with the past as I went through the emotional script of the children every morning. It put everything in perspective. But it wasn't a self-searching thing. Instead I made fond memories with my hometown as an adult, drinking coffee and working every morning at this bakery,'' she said, adding with a smile, "Now I feel nostalgic."
Kim said she plans to work on another family drama, about an immature young father learning life lessons from his seven-year-old daughter.