The best films about childhood rely heavily on an alchemic bond between filmmaker and actor, and the connection between director So Yong Kim and the two very young leads of her new film “Treeless Mountain” must have been nothing short of miraculous. The story of Jin (Hee-Yeon Kim) and Bin (Song-Hee Kim), sisters left in the care of an indifferent, hard-drinking aunt while their mother goes in search of their absentee father, is a marvel of naturalism. Taken out of school and abandoned to wander the village all day, six-year-old Jin and four-year-old Bin learn to be resourceful, catching grasshoppers to grill and sell, saving up coins in a piggy bank in hopes that it’ll make their mother come back for them as she promised. I spoke to the Korean-born Kim about returning to her own childhood home to shoot the film, avoiding sentimentality and that whole pesky “neo-neo realism” thing.
Your first film, “In Between Days,” is about a girl who had come from Korea and was living here and struggling with the experience. What led you to actually go back to Korea to shoot “Treeless Mountain”?
This film was always set in Korea, and it was really important to me personally, going back to my own home country to tell this story. It was more difficult than I thought it would be, but I’m glad that I had the chance to work there as a filmmaker and explore the country, to see it with different eyes. When I was writing the script, all the places that I located the scenes in were based on my memory from 1970-something. To go back and see these locations — a lot of the places haven’t changed at all. It brought such a sentiment of connection for me.
What were some of the things that made it more difficult than you’d expected?
It’s one thing to dream of shooting a film in your home town, but it’s another to implement all the logistics of having your crew be half American and half Korean. There was a huge language barrier, and also a cultural barrier in the beginning. It was a rocky start. But something magical happened, which, thinking back, was a miracle — even though the first week of the shoot was very difficult and intense for everyone, after that it was so smooth. Everyone got along. It was like people were meditating. Everyone connected, and language didn’t become an issue.
Despite “Treeless Mountain” being about two neglected children, I don’t think the film’s in any way sentimental. What that something on your mind when making it?
I’m constantly worried about that. It was a huge fear for me, before finishing the script, during pre-production, even when I was shooting, especially when I was editing. That was a huge monster that I had to tackle. When I watch anything that makes me cry or feel like “wasn’t that cute,” I’m like, “Oh no. That film’s not gonna stay with me.” It becomes this emotional candy bar. You’ll overdose on it and then forget about it. I didn’t want to make a film like that. I wanted to treat [the girls] like they were adults, with respect and a sense of the strong characters that they both had.
I was struck, watching the film, by how much it’s from the girls’ point of view — there’s an immersion in this childhood world. How did you put yourself in that space?
I wanted to make sure that the camera was always on the eye level of the kids, to convey the sense that you’re in these situations with them instead of observing them from far away. And I always wanted to start with the close-ups of each face, so that you could see these expressions that are so pure and honest from both girls. I tried to convey as much intimacy with them as possible. I completely trusted them and their ability to be in this film.