The children with their ‘Big Aunt’

I’m not sure about this small-scale, personal film. Director Kim So Yong (b. 1968) left South Korea for the US when she was 12 and this film is her second feature as a Korean-American returning to the country of her birth. Funded by grants from Sundance, Cannes and Pusan Festivals, it feels like an ‘outside’ or observer’s view of something she experienced as a child in some way. The story is very simple. Six year-old Jin and her younger sister Bin find themselves ‘parked’ by their mother, first with their ‘Big Aunt’ and then with their grandparents while mother searches for their father (who has presumably deserted the family). Eventually, it becomes clear that Mother isn’t going to return – at least not in the near future.

The children (without previous experience) are very good and the slight story isn’t really a drawback as they are always interesting and engaging.  The press notes (from the production company website) reveal that the 89 minute film required 40 hours of footage (shot on Super 16) and that the hardest part was editing out the director’s instructions to the girls. The big problem for me was the shot size and framings. Many shots were in close-up with shallow focus and little in the way of establishing shots. Consequently, I found much of the opening half hour very wearing. Nick suggested that long lenses were being used so that the children would be less bothered by the camera, which makes sense. In the later stages of the film, as the children move out of Seoul into first a small town and then a rural area, there are more long shots and more sense of freedom. Perhaps this reflects, in the final sequence at least, a growing confidence as the children feel more secure.

If it wasn’t for the camera style, I might have seen the film as a rather austere neo-realist document, which besides the children’s emerging personalities also gave some insights into Korean culture – there is a lot of eating, for instance. This partly signifies the move from city to country (the food was more attractive for me, the more natural/less sophisticated it got) – a contra-flow for the adults who leave the country for the city in many societies. The obvious point to make about the film is that men are peripheral and this is largely a film about mothers, surrogate mothers and small daughters. I’m not sure about the title, but a posting on IMDB suggests that the children represent a mountain and the missing parents are the trees. There does indeed appear to be a symbolic moment when the younger child finds a branch from a tree and ‘plants’ it in a mound of rubble.

The film has been very well-reviewed and thinking back there is probably more to it than I first thought. I was aware of reflecting on depictions of childhood in other films. In the image above, the children seem to be moving through a field of similar flowering grasses as in the famous sequence from Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and the hungry children’s search for food reminded me of Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero.

Kim’s style, according to Screen International involves deploying “mainly a hand-held camera, close-ups of female faces, and interspersed inserts of static natural settings”. The static shots were very welcome, but what would have pleased me (i.e. a few more long shots instead of CUs) might have produced something too lyrical?