The Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne of Brooklyn-based independent filmmakers, So Yong Kim and Bradley Rust Gray are partners in work and life. Married for 10 years—they met as students at the Art Institute of Chicago—Kim, 41, and Gray, 38, have directed two features apiece, each producing the other’s work and frequently collaborating on writing and editing. Theirs is a profoundly intimate oeuvre, distinguished by extreme close-ups and achingly true performances by their often nonprofessional casts. And in their individual and collective work, the Prospect Heights residents have emerged as this generation’s most gifted chroniclers of girlhood, creating unforgettable young heroines—all on view in BAMcinématek’s showcase.
Kim, who was born in Pusan and immigrated to the U.S. when she was 12, has admitted to certain autobiographical elements in both her films, In Between Days (2006) and Treeless Mountain (2008). Her melancholic debut focuses on teenage Aimie (Jiseon Kim), a recent Korean immigrant living with her mother in Toronto who falls in love with her best friend. Kim’s immigrant song, though culturally specific, is immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever moped, yearned, and been unbearably cruel—anyone who has ever been a teenager. Set in Seoul and Hunghae, South Korea, Treeless Mountain features even younger protagonists—six-year-old Jin (Song Hee Kim) and her four-year-old sister, Bin (Hee Yeon 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. As most children under duress do, Jin and Bin rely on magical thinking to give them a sense of control over their unpredictable environment, their red plastic piggy bank assuming talismanic significance. Without a trace of sentimentality, Treeless Mountain shows tremendous respect for its tiny heroines, making it one of the best films about childhood ever made.
Where Kim’s work is informed by autobiography, Gray’s is shaped by unwavering empathy. The late-adolescent protagonists of Gray’s Salt (2003) and The Exploding Girl (set for release next year) occupy two vastly different landscapes—a tiny fishing village in Iceland in the former; a Brooklyn brownstone in the latter—but each figures out how to mend a broken or heavy heart. Salt‘s Hildur (Brynja Thóra Gudnadóttir) falls in love with her sister’s best friend on a road trip to Reykjavík; by film’s end, the carrot-topped fish-factory worker escapes the impossible situation by taking a cue from Icelandic lore. With a cast of up-and-coming actors, The Exploding Girl centers on epileptic Ivy (Zoe Kazan), home from college on summer break and trying to negotiate the end of one relationship and the beginning of another, her silent contemplation cocooning her within the bloom and bustle of the city.
Kim and Gray have selected three personal favorites for the BAM series, excellent companion pieces that are in definite conversation with their own work. The brute will displayed by the titular 18-year-old heroine of the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta (1999) suggests a scrappy (and Marxist) sister to Aimie, Hildur, and Ivy. The hoods and ne’er-do-wells in their late teens and early 20s of Tsai Ming-liang’s Rebels of the Neon God (1993) are adrift in watery anomie but still hoping for some kind of connection—just like the agonizing ex-boyfriends of Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997), adults who seem destined to repeat all the disaster and euphoria of first love.