Beth Accomando's review of Treeless Mountain and interview with its director So Yong Kim
Related Story: Treeless Mountain
So Yong Kim was born in Korea, immigrated to America as a girl and has been living in the U.S. for more than two decades. When she decided to return to Korea to make a feature film she was greeted by disbelief.
SO YONG KIM: What? You are going to make this film in Korea? And you live in where? And you don't even speak Korean properly, like what are you doing?
But Kim had a story to tell about her experiences growing up and living with various relatives after her mother immigrated to the United States.
SO YONG KIM: So it's from that experience, it's not 100% autobiographical in the sense that all the events are true but what I tried to convey by telling the story is to communicate certain feelings that I had of longing and searching for family, and how do you find a sense of family when you don't know what is going on with your family, that kind of confusion that I went through as a child I wanted to like search for that through telling the story.
The film begins with Kim's alter ego Jin taking care of her little sister as her mother copes with single parenthood and financial stress. Abruptly the mom decides to leave to look for her estranged husband. So she drops the girls off with her husband's drunken sister. She tells the girls that as soon as they fill their piggy bank, she will return.
CLIP kids dropping coins in bank
The task of filling the big round piggy consumes the girls who decide to sell roasted crickets to local kids to raise funds. Kim's attention to detail and insistence on staying with the girls' perspective makes their new environment immediately accessible to the audience.
SO YONG KIM: I wanted the camera to be on the eye level of the kids particularly Jin and also always, always capture them in close ups first in all the takes and if we had some time we'd go wider …but I think children are just mirrors of their pure emotions or whatever they are experiencing goes directly to their face so I really felt that it was important to capture the moment when Jin is going through these changes both as somebody who has to cope with the fact that she has to take care of her younger sister or the fact that her mom might not come back.
The young girls are not professional actors and Kim says one of the keys to capturing natural performances from them was to keep the crew small.
SO YONG KIM: For all the interior scenes we only had 4 people in the room including myself because I wanted to make sure the kids felt safe and intimate and I didn't want a bunch of adults staring at them.
The film conveys a vivid portrait of two girls left essentially on their own. We share their small joys as well as their nagging fears as they cope with the absence of their mother and get moved from one relative to another. Translating the facts of her life into a narrative film was challenging for Kim.
SO YONG KIM: I really had to go through this process of disengaging my own emotional baggage from the main character and it was kind of a grueling process of writing and rewriting and trying to be very objective. …
Objective so that the characters could take on a life of their own. Kim says she envisioned the film initially as a kind of letter to let her mom know what she and her sister were doing while the mom was gone.
SO YONG KIM: She felt like her part of the story wasn't completely told and she was a little bit angry but I talked to her about that and she knows the reason why I felt like I needed to communicate certain feelings and emotions in the film. It's not a statement about motherhood but it's more about conveying a certain emotional journey of the children.
In a sense, I a journey out of childhood for both Jin and filmmaker So Yong Kim. Kim's vivid memories combined with sublime filmmaking create a vivid visual tale about the resiliency and adaptability of children, and about the way early experiences can shape an adult life.
For KPBS, I'm Beth Accomando