So Yong Kim is the director of the feature films In Between Days and Treeless Mountain. The former, a portrait of the alienation of a teenage Korean girl newly relocated to Toronto, won a Special Jury Prize for Independent Vision at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. The latter, the story of a pair of very young sisters sent away from their home in Seoul to live with their remote, alcoholic Aunt and then with their grandparents in the countryside, won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2009 Berlin International Film Festival, the Muhr Award at the 2008 Dubai International Film Festival and the Netpac Award at the 2008 Pusan International Film Festival. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
Because the film has its, to an American, foreign setting — I talk to a lot of Americans about it, and they do get caught up in the fact that it is in Seoul and Heunghae, the foreignness of certain elements of it. — how much did you want to make a story rooted in its geographic location, rooted in place, and how much did you want to make one in themes that are more universal: childhood, sisterhood?
Ideally, what I always dreamed of, making this film — I wanted to set it in my hometown, which is Heunghae, Korea. When I first started writing the story in 2003 or so, certain events were based on my memory of the location when I grew up there in the seventies. It's quite a while back, so I wasn't really sure how much the country had changed or how much my hometown had changed. I just started from very basic elements in the story that I wanted to focus on, which were the journey these two sisters take, and the emotional journey they go through. In that sense, that's much more universal than the story being just a Korean story
I believe I read in a previous interview with you that the seed of the story that became Treeless Mountain was actually something you wrote in a creative writing class. How much did you start off with? What was the very beginning of just the idea of the story itself, before even combining it with details of your memory of Hunghae?
I've always felt that I'm not a very strong writer. I was taking this creative writing class and our teacher gave us an assignment. She said to write about something you remember in your childhood, something like that. The story I wrote was about these two sisters who were catching grasshoppers and grilling them. They weren't selling them in that short story, but they were grilling them and tasting it — how they ate the grashoppers and stuff, those details were in that story. That was Treeless Mountain; I drew this picture in a sketchbook and wrote “Treeless Mountain” back then. The title of the film stayed as that to the very end.
The treeless mountain was, then, an image you had, more than anything?
Yeah, it was a very quick drawing in my sketchbook of this hill and these two stick figures. They were holding a little branch, and I wrote, next to it, “Treeless Mountain”.
With the grilling of the grasshoppers — this is something I had to ask you — was that actually a pursuit you had as a kid?
Yeah, yeah! In the fall, the grasshopper season peaks. That's when the harvest happens; that's when they age and mature. That's when we used to run around, back in the old days in the country.
Is that a common thing there? The grasshopper-eating is something viewers get so hung up on. I do wonder: were they good?
They were good. You just have to make sure you grill it all the way through. It's a little nutty. To get our two young actors to eat them on set for the scenes, we had to have all the grown-ups around them eat one, to show them that, “Oh, it's really delicious.”
That is funny, because one of the things that kept coming up in my mind, watching this movie, is how often directors will say, “I'm never going to work with kids. I'll never work with kids. It's so hard.” I was reading about the task you had just working with these two, who sounded like they were more cooperative than most young actors. Then you actually have to get them to eat bugs. That's got to be harder than anything.
No, you know, you'd be surprised. I think it was harder to convince the grown-ups to eat the grasshoppers than the kids.
You convinced your whole crew to eat grasshoppers? That's the last thing I'll ask about the grasshoppers, I promise.
Everybody. All the producers. Everybody on set had to eat one.
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