Korean-American filmmaker So Yong Kim mines her past to make movies about girls left adrift by adults
THE girls in So Yong Kim’s films don’t have happy childhoods. Everything unravels around them. Their parents’ marriage disintegrates and their fathers disappear. Their mothers neglect them, too busy to care, and they get sent to live with relatives. And it doesn’t help that the confusing emotions that come with puberty muddle up their lives further while they’re still grappling with the upheavals at home.
The independent filmmaker, who is Korean-American, doesn’t hide the fact that she excavates the memory of her own childhood when writing her films. She once said that “with each film I have been learning, not just about film-making, but also about life and myself.”
She was born in Pusan, South Korea, in 1968, but her parents split when she was little. Her mother moved to the US soon after, in search of a better life, leaving Kim to live with her grandparents in a rice farm. She joined her mother in Los Angeles when she was 12 and spent her formative years as an American immigrant.
This childhood experience was explored in her first film, In Between Days (2006), that she made after earning an MFA in Performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she met her future husband, fellow filmmaker Bradley Rust Gray.
They made experimental films together but after living in London (Gray also studied at the British Film Institute) for a spell, they were influenced by world cinema and started working on narrative films. They started a production company (they call it a “creative team”), SOANDBRAD, and have made three films each.
In In Between Days, an adolescent Korean girl struggles to adapt to her new life in Toronto, Canada, while trying to make sense of her burgeoning sexuality. It appears as if Kim is investigating her own experience in LA through the story of this fictional Korean girl.
The film went on to win a clutch of awards, among them the Special Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, the International Critics’ Prize at Berlin Film Festival, the LA Critics Prize, and the Best Film and Best Actress Prizes at the Buenos Aires International Film Festival. Kim became an instant hit with the festival crowd for her minimal, very European art-filmy films and her unflinching portrayals of real life.
“The inspiration for In Between Days came from my teenage years of growing up in a suburb in Los Angeles,” she states. “My intention is to share an immigrant story that is personal and honest. With that in mind, I tried to create an intimate character study of a young girl who is coming of age while adapting to life in a new country.”
She delved into her childhood again in her second film, Treeless Mountain (2008), which also won accolades at film festivals. It tells the heartrending story of two sisters in Seoul, South Korea, coping with life after their father disappears and their mother goes in search of him.
In an interview with The New York Times, she said that Treeless Mountain was personal, “even if it seems self-involved,” and described her second film as a “letter to my mother.”
The fledgling director had also just given birth to her first child when she was casting for the film and felt that it was a perfect motivation to study her relationship with her mother. She said, “There’s a sense that if I don’t make this film now, I’ll never make it.”
Her third film, For Ellen (2012), was her first non-Korean work after graduating to a bigger budget and even bigger stars. In this movie, A-list actor Paul Dano played a terrific down-and-out rock n’ roller trying to reclaim his six-year-old daughter after his marriage fell apart.
It is, again, sort of autobiographical since Kim’s father also abandoned his family when she was little, and she has only met him once. The film was her way of understanding why her father left and how that brief encounter affected her.
The heart of her film is still that little girl lost. “I remember meeting my own estranged father for the first time when I was six or so,” she said. “This stranger showed up at our house one day and said, ‘I’m your dad.’ Then he disappeared.”
When we met her at the Paramount Hotel in New York before the launch of Spark and Light (2014), a short film she made for Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales series of short films, she seemed a bit astonished and amused at the hype surrounding the film, which stars Elvis Presley’s luminous granddaughter, Riley Keough. Kim befriended the young actress when she starred in Gray’s film, Jack and Diane (2012).
Although Kim was exhausted from promoting her new film for Miu Miu (she wasn’t wearing the label during our interview) and fielding questions from the press junket all afternoon by the time we caught up with her, she remained effervescent. When I pointed out that the theme of a girl in crisis seems to recur in her films like an obsession, she laughed, her sense of humour intact.
“Yes, I think it does, actually,” she says. “I never thought of it as a theme that I explore specifically but I’m a little obsessed with family dynamics and relationships, you know – who you are as an individual away from your family.”
She half-jokingly said she would prefer to make films that are completely different in the future, like comedy or sci-fi, even though her fourth film – whose working title is Seventy – is going to be about a seventy-year-old woman who loses her identity after her children grow up and have families of their own.
She said, laughing, “I wish someone would give me a script and say ‘make this’, and it’s something completely different.”
Spark and Light, again, centres around a young girl, Keough, who finds herself stranded in Iceland’s frigid landscape after her car breaks down on the side of the road while on her way to visit her sick mother in the hospital. It is a dreamy, elliptical film that blurs the boundary between waking and sleeping.
Keough had found Kim’s script compelling. “I thought it would be fun to play an entire character in a dream,” said Keough, “because it’s not something you normally do. Your perspective would be different and the way you behave would be kind of odd because you do strange things in dreams.”
Kim recalled wrestling with the short-film format – in the case of Spark and Light, 10 minutes and 50 seconds – even though Miu Miu had given her complete freedom to tell any story as long as the idea was triggered by
the label’s collection. “It was in a way like, ‘here is something [the clothes] for your inspiration,’ you know, it,’s almost being given a spark or gift,” she said. “It was very challenging as I’ve never made a short narrative film before
it’s very difficult – every minute or second has to work for the film. You can’t have these long landscape shots so it was an intense, disciplinary task.”
After seeing the collection, So had very little time to sketch out an idea for Miu Miu. “I felt so much pressure,” she told us. “I was thinking of mythology, fantasy, and fairy tales, that kind of thing, and then one morning, I woke up and said, ‘OK, I have to do this now, and I just wrote this story about a girl named Elizabeth. But I really have to say the story came from seeing the collection.”
Then she decided to call the short Spark and Light. Although Kim’s films have garnered awards and praise at film festivals, they have yet to translate into box office success. Nonetheless, Kim’s films are courageous because they are realistic and inspired by her own life story, and because she resists blockbuster-y gloss and happy endings – so far.
But who knows what will happen when Hollywood comes knocking at her door. Her continuing success will also depend on that elusive thing all writers (or journalists) know and fear: it is called “inspiration”.
“I don’t know if you feel this way as a writer but the story has to come to you,” she explained. “It’s like a ‘spark’ and you have to capture it and hold on to that spark. And the ‘light’ part is about reaching out.”
by Peter Yeoh
From the Glass Archive – Issue 18 – Pride
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