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Treeless Mountain

Dazed talks to director So Yong Kim about her latest feature film, a delicate depiction of childhood based on her own memories of growing up in Korea.

Treeless Mountain immerses viewers in the lonely world of its two young protagonists – six-year-old Jin (Hee-yeon Kim) and her four-year-old sister Bin (Song-hee Kim). When their mother (Soo-ah Lee) goes in search of their estranged father the girls are forced to up sticks and move in with their stern Aunt (Mi-hyang Kim). They spend their days waiting for their mother to return and saving pennies to fill their large pink piggy bank.  From this simple premise Brooklyn-based So Yong Kim creates an affecting snapshot of childhood, keeping her camera tightly focused on the young actors and capturing the world from their viewpoint.  A hit on the festival circuit it reaches the UK this January.  

Dazed Digital: What was the initial inspiration for the film?
So Yong Kim: The film's story is based on my childhood memories of growing up in Korea. It took me a long time to turn bits and pieces from my memories into a cohesive story. Although I reached a point where I felt that the story had some substance, it wasn't until I met the two leads that the film became possible. I am forever grateful for the chance opportunity that brought us together.

DD: How did you cast the two young girls?
So Yong Kim: Brad [Bradley Rust Gray], my producer, and I got permission to visit elementary schools and kindergartens in Seoul, Korea. It was difficult to get our first introduction but after that, we were recommended by the teachers to go visit other schools. It was a long process and I didn't meet the lead actress who plays Jin, Hee-yeon Kim, until a month before we started to shoot. Song-hee's photo was sent to me by my assistant in Korea and I felt a strong connection to her face from the beginning. As soon as I arrived in Korea for pre-production, I went to meet her. The two girls met for the first time a week before we started to shoot and it was like a blind-date. I had no idea if they would get along. Thinking back I was very fortunate.

DD: Was it challenging to direct such young cast members?  
So Yong Kim: I wouldn't say that it was any more challenging than working with a grown-up actor. I tried to listen to them and to look for opportunities to expand the scenes I have written. The most important thing was to create an environment where they felt comfortable being themselves. It was a matter of allowing them to behave how they would in certain circumstances and making sure that the camera was there to capture those moments.

DD: The film captures the interior world of a child so well – what was the key to making it so realistic?  
So Yong Kim: That was one of my main goals in making this film. I felt it was crucial to capture the world through their eyes and tell the story through their emotions. I was not sure at the time of shooting if it was going to work, because during the shoot, I'm so focused on the immediate moments that come up. It wasn't until I finished editing that I felt that this concept had been carried through to the end.  But I think it really helped that I had this over-arching goal as a guidance. Our daughter was just ten months old when we started shooting. I have to say that becoming a mother added another layer that I needed to make the film happen.

DD: How much of the film was scripted?  Were you influenced by the way the two girls interacted with each other during filming?
So Yong Kim: Yes, I was incredibly influenced by their interactions and chemistry. I relied on the script as a reference because that was absolutely necessary. But I found that some of the things they said and did with each other, much more interesting.

DD: The style is very like a documentary – were you influenced by other contemporary realist works such as Kelly Reichardt’s films?  
So Yong Kim: I love Kelly's work! I am not sure if we are necessarily influenced by the same filmmakers. I am heavily influenced by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's films. For Treeless Mountain I watched a lot of films with children as the lead characters: 400 Blows, Nobody Knows, Ponette, I was Born, But...

DD: You shot on location in Korea – what was this experience like?
So Yong Kim: In general it was difficult to shoot in Korea because I don't have a strong industry connection there. But overall it was a rewarding experience. We shot the first six days in Seoul then we moved to a small town where the rest of the story takes place. The small town is called Hunghae and it's my home town. That was incredible.

DD: How did you come to work with Asobi Seksu for the soundtrack?
So Yong Kim: We met them for my first feature film In Between Days. They donated a song for the end credit of In Between Days.  For Treeless Mountain, I asked them to write a song for the end after showing them a rough-cut of the film.

Treeless Mountain is released on 8 January 2010