Treeless Mountain Director So Yong Kim on the Joys of Working With Child Actors (Really!)

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Photo: Parts and Labor

Korean-American director So Yong Kim garnered critical praise and awards for her first feature, In Between Days, a love story about an immigrant and her best friend. Her new film, Treeless Mountain, which opened yesterday, is the tale of two very young sisters who are left by their mother in the care of relatives; what emerges is something like a Brothers Grimm tale bordering on documentary realism. It also features two of the most amazing child performances we’ve seen in recent years. Vulture spoke to the New York–based Kim about how she found her actors, and about the challenges of shooting a film in Korea after living most of her life in the U.S.

How did you find these incredible child actors?
I basically looked through a lot of kindergartens and elementary schools. I had permission to videotape the kids to get an idea of what they’re like. Now, my Korean is closer to that of a 6-year-old. And when I spent time with her, the older girl, Hee-yeon, actually asked me, “How come you’re an adult but you’re talking like a child?” She was so straightforward and honest. The younger one was found with the help of my assistant in Korea, who was in university and was doing community service working in orphanages. And Song-hee was in foster care. I saw her in a photo. She had such an intense expression of maturity and this really bright smile that was so amazing.

So they’ve never acted before. How did you coax such great performances out
of them?

I read a lot of interviews with directors who had worked with kids before. I did the Sundance Labs and got to work with one child actor from L.A., just to see how I was going to direct them. When it came down to shooting, we didn’t rehearse, and the kids didn’t know what the scenes were. What I tried to do was to create an atmosphere that was very intimate for them.

Did your vision of the film change in any way due to the special circumstances of working with such young actors?
I thought I was going to shoot the film mostly handheld. But I also wanted the camera to be at their eye level. And we discovered that it was so heavy that we had to put it on a tripod. So the film ended up much calmer, style-wise. In addition, I would have ideas about what scenes to shoot in the morning, which would then have to quickly change depending on what mood the kids were in. One of them might be angry at the other, or they may not want to interact much. I basically just gave up. I realized I wasn’t going to be able to control anything, so we had to structure things in a really flexible way.

You mentioned that your Korean is basically the equivalent of a 6-year-old. Did that pose any difficulties when working in Korea?
Actually, it wasn’t much of a problem. For starters, the older actors were incredibly forgiving. And the fact that I spoke in a really simple language might have actually helped me convey my ideas more clearly.

You and your husband, Bradley Rust Gray, whose The Exploding Girl is playing at Tribeca, collaborate on all your films. Which is interesting, because your films feel quite different.
I’m surprised to hear you say that our films feel so different. To us they actually feel quite similar, but obviously we’re looking at it from a different angle. We have this approach where when one of us writes or directs, the other one does the support work. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful working process for both of us.