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Treeless Mountain

Korean-Born, New York-Based Filmmaker Talks About Her New Film

Two young sisters are left to their own devices in Treeless Mountain

Credit: Oscilloscope

Above: Two young sisters are left to their own devices in Treeless Mountain


Beth Accomando's review of Treeless Mountain and interview with its director So Yong Kim


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 the feature film Treeless Mountain (opening May 29 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters) 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: The story is based on my experience of growing up in Korea and particularly living with my grandparents after our mother immigrated to the United States before us. 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.

Treeless Mountain 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.

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 capture them in close ups first in all the takes, and if we had some time we'd go wider. But I thought since they have such an amazing face, so pure. Children don't have this built in mannerism that adults have to society because we're taught to behave a certain way and in a civilized manner. 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. I really tried to convey as much as I can of what they are experiencing through the camera.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Oscilloscope

Treeless Mountain

Kim's attention to detail extended to the blue princess dress that little Bin wears almost through the entire movie.

SO YONG KIM: That's always been in the script and it was very very difficult getting a blue princess dress in Korea. They're all pink or white or yellow. I wanted to be very clear that Bin is at that stage in her life where she still believes in fantasy and fairy tales, and she takes everything her mom says very literally. Whereas Jin's in school and she is reaching out to the adult world more trying to be more conscientious of what's going on around her. So that was part of the reason why, and the princess dress was given to Bin by her mom so it has this connection that she's trying to hold on to.

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.

SO YONG KIM: My childhood experience of being moved from home to home feeds into how I live now with my husband. I don’t really have a definition of home besides that it is like wherever my husband and I decide to live with our daughter that's for us our foundation.

Kim says that her film straddles two countries and she's not sure how it will be looked upon.

SO YONG KIM: Treeless Mountain is something that was shot in Korea. It's about Korean people. But I don't know if it is going to be viewed in the context of Korean New Wave Cinema or if it is going to be considered a little oddity because it's not exactly a hundred percent Korean. I've been living in the states for over 25 years now so I think I'm definitely not addressing contemporary issues of Korean society. I am not in tune with what's going on in Korea right now. I live in New York and I'm based in the States so I can't say Treeless Mountain was a very particular experience and personal experience for me, and to make the film and tell the story. So what I do hope is that when people see it in Korea when it's released in June is to take away that sense of honesty that I was trying to portray and see that it's just a very personal story that I was trying to tell.

Treeless Mountain (unrated and in Korean with English subtitles) is an exquisite work told almost exclusively through Kim's images of the young girls.

Companion viewing: In Between Days, Nobody Knows, Cave of the Yellow Dog

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