No director working today captures girlhood better than So Yong Kim. Her debut film, 2006’s dreamy, melancholic In Between Days, focuses on teenager Aimie, a recent Korean immigrant living with her mother in Toronto, who falls deeply in love with her best friend. Kim’s second feature, Treeless Mountain, which plays at New Directors/New Films before opening at Film Forum on April 22, is simply one of the best films about childhood ever made: Set in Seoul and Hunghae, Korea, Treeless Mountain follows two sisters—six-year-old Jin (Hee-Yeon Kim) and four-year-old Bin (Song-Hee Kim)—struggling to make sense of the world after their mother leaves them in the care of an alcoholic aunt and, later, with their maternal grandparents in the country.
Though both of Kim’s features are rooted in personal memories, the writer-director, who was born in Pusan and immigrated to the U.S. when she was 12, is careful to note that autobiographical elements were merely a starting point: “When I made In Between Days, I really wanted to tell this girl’s story; it had this sense of urgency,” the Brooklyn-based Kim, 40, says. “For Treeless Mountain, I really wanted to go into this relationship between the two sisters and [portray] how there’s a maturity that comes to Jin.”
While writing the script for Treeless Mountain, which began as a short story for a creative-writing class in 2003, Kim remembers thinking, “It wasn’t going to be doable because it’s dealing with kids. And there was a huge chance of it becoming sentimental and melodramatic.” Seeing other films about childhood—like Jacques Doillon’s Ponette, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows, and Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born But . . . —helped assuage some of those concerns. Trying to ensure that her film didn’t become maudlin, Kim avoided over-the-top screaming: “I also wanted to avoid frontal crying, because I felt it’s somehow not dignified for Jin and Bin.”
To elicit such remarkable performances from her extremely young, nonprofessional cast, Kim set up certain scenarios for the girls and fed them lines: “I knew what lines I had to get them to say for certain scenes; after I got that line, I just let them do what they felt like,” the director explains. “Children are so perceptive, and they’re so sensitive. They can figure things out even when they’re not spelled out for them.”
“Treeless Mountain” screens March 27 and March 29