Three features in, South Korea-born filmmaker So Yong Kim is starting to look like one of the more distinctive voices in contemporary American indie cinema, no matter that the third of her modest yet assured dramas, For Ellen, is the first to set foot in the US.
In Between Days, her 2006 debut, told the story of a Korean immigrant teenager struggling to acclimatise to a new life in Toronto with her emotionally detached mother. Treeless Mountain followed in 2008, Kim returning to Korea for an understated tragedy about two young sisters abandoned by their mother. Ozu’s I Was Born But… (1932) and Koreeda’s Nobody Knows (2006) were the closest touchstones for its exquisitely unaffected approximation of childhood wonder and incomprehension.
On American soil, and shifting from non-professional performers to a name actor (Paul Dano) for the lead, For Ellen marks a departure for Kim even as thematically she merely edges sidewards, to examine her central preoccupation – the space left by absent parents – from a fresh perspective.
The father, previously a structuring absence in Kim’s work, here takes centre stage. Dano plays Joby Taylor, a self-consumed would-be rock star jolted into a sudden interest in his estranged six-year-old daughter Ellen (Shaylena Lynn Mandingo) by a divorce settlement that threatens to strip away his hitherto unexercised paternal rights.
“Questions from audiences [at the time of Treeless Mountain] were always along the lines of ‘How come your films don’t have male characters, or they’re absent?’”, says Kim. “So I was thinking about this absence in my life and in my films, and I think that – though I didn’t want to – it was something that I had to address.”
“At that moment, it felt like a good opportunity because I became a mother, so I was posing questions like, what must it be like to let go of a child or to not be connected to your own child? It seemed like the timing was perfect.”
As a work of imagining, Joby is no one’s idea of the ideal father. A dishevelled, luckless singer who shirks from the responsibilities of adulthood, he’s an insular, not always likeable figure.
“I had to live with Joby for a while,” recollects Kim. “You see the final product, but I have hours and hours of footage of him I had to live with. Making a film about someone unsympathetic is an uncomfortable experience. When I first wrote his character I didn’t realise how unsympathetic he might be. Joby has this passion for music, right or wrong. [Similarly] you have to have an absolute belief in who you are in order to make films, but people who aren’t into filmmaking or art think you’re completely insane. In a way it’s my most personal film – I put a lot of myself, my own neurotic character traits into Joby, and facing them was difficult.”
Did working with Dano differ from her experience with non-professionals?
“In one way [it was] very similar. He’s a very devoted actor, he’s done months of research, and also we developed this whole back story of the character, so once the filming started he never had questions like ‘should he be like this or like that?’ He knew the character absolutely. I felt I was just rolling the camera and capturing the moments, much like how I’d worked with non-actors.”
Though Dano excels as the sad, wraith-like Joby, it’s the way his daughter innocently intuits his character’s pathos that leaves the lasting impression. Another of Kim’s child-actor discoveries, Shaylena was cast from a local school near the film’s locations in upstate New York.
“Shaylena was probably the smallest kid in the class,” Kim explains, “but very focussed and serious about everything that she was doing. It was a physical education class, so they were doing jump rope and running around the lap, but she was so meticulous. She was always last, but the one who did everything perfectly. I found that fascinating and had the sense that she was the one.”
With the occasional, Ozu-like cutaway to empty skies overhead, For Ellen is a film constructed in claustrophobic close quarters with its actors, the intimate drama of a child and returning father getting to know each other evolving in a cross-play of facial reactions. “I love close-ups of people’s faces,” Kim says. “I think people’s faces have a history in them, a truth about what the person has experienced or is experiencing. I love to keep that sense of landscape in a person’s face.”
While some of her affinities (she cites Lee Chong-dong) are eastern, Kim feels a kinship with other minimal-inclined filmmakers on the US scene, mentioning Kelly Reichardt, Ramin Bahrani and Lance Hammer. “It’s a fusion of Asian and American cinema that I try to bring together,” she asserts.
Whatever their external influences, her three films feel wrenched from somewhere acutely personal. Kim has scrutinised the situation of a fatherless daughter from the vantage point of a teenaged girl, two preschool girls, and now that of the truant father. Perhaps a mother’s perspective will be next?
“Yes, how did you know?” she responds, disclosing the focus of her next script. “It’s really intense. The mother topic is so difficult for me.”