Words by Mimi Vu Photography by Michael Mundy
The first time you watch a film by the director So Yong Kim, what strikes you immediately is her knack for conjuring intense emotional depth and complexity in characters who are going about very ordinary, even humdrum, lives. Kim’s 2006 debut feature, In Between Days, was a nuanced portrait of an alienated and fatherless Korean teenager making her way in a wintry American city. Her second film, Treeless Mountain, followed two young girls in Korea abandoned by their mother in the care of a resentful aunt. And in 2012’s For Ellen, a deadbeat rocker tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter. In all of these, Kim manages to illuminate the subtle and painful dynamics of fragmented families, using highly realistic cinematography and a steady rhythm that remains true to life.
So perhaps it was only fitting that for her latest feature, Lovesong—which traces the relationship between Sarah, a lonely young mother, and her best friend, Mindy, as their bond unexpectedly deepens from platonic to romantic—Kim and her husband and collaborator, the director Bradley Rust Gray, chose to film partially within their own home in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, weaving the small rituals of their family life into Sarah’s story to evoke the ennui of rural living.
Kim says the idea for the film first came to her years ago, when she and Gray were living in New Paltz, New York. They had arrived there after an exciting stint in Reykjavik and were expecting their first daughter, when they suddenly found themselves struck by cabin fever. “We were going crazy,” says Kim, laughing as she recounted the story recently at their home. “We were having dreams about hurting each other.” Adds Gray, “She was fantasizing about running me over in the car.” (The couple work very closely together—producing each other’s projects and jointly editing their films—and you can sense a very fruitful, creative push-pull between them.) Kim and Gray promptly fled the area, but a few years later—and with two young daughters in tow—they landed in Lackawaxen, their lives now anchored by domesticity. The moment seemed right to revisit the idea of rural seclusion. “The theme of Lovesong,” says Kim, “is just about being a mom and being in an isolated place.”
The Upper Delaware Valley has hosted film productions both classic and campy—from D.W. Griffith’s The Informer (shot in Milford) to Wet Hot American Summer (Honesdale). But Lovesong, in keeping with the intimate feel of Kim’s work, was a small and tight-knit affair. Kim chose two of her friends, the actresses Riley Keough and Jena Malone, to play Sarah and Mindy, respectively. And she cast her own girls—Sky, now 9, and Jessie, 5—as Sarah’s daughter, Jessie, at two different stages of the film.
The process of capturing Sarah and Jessie’s daily life—in Kim and Gray’s 1980s wooden A-frame home—was fairly organic. Keough stayed at the house with the family, sleeping in the garage. “We had Riley do stuff around here with Jessie,” says Gray, “like give Jessie a bath and take her swimming, and we’d film her doing those things. And there was just one camera person and one sound person.” In other words, it was a setup that helped construct that claustrophobic sense of a woman who’s left alone with a kid in the countryside.
Sarah reconnects with her old friend Mindy, and together they set out on a road trip with Jessie, making stops at a rodeo and an amusement park, which provide a backdrop for their intensifying feelings toward each other. Two Pennsylvania attractions near Kim’s home were the setting for these crucial scenes: the Malibu Dude Ranch in Milford and the Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, a 90-year-old family-owned theme park boasting a colorful Ferris wheel and two legendary wooden roller-coasters.
“In all our films, the setting and the location provide important texture,” says Kim. “In Between Days, the main character is walking through the snow a lot, and it adds to her character and shows how she survives.” In a similar way, Lovesong incorporates many atmospheric elements of the countryside, from an unexpected thunderstorm to local wildlife. “What’s nice about shooting in your house without a plan,” says Gray, “is that if there’s a deer outside, the deer is part of the movie.”
There is little in the way of adornment in Kim’s work. Her films are driven less by “events” than by slight shifts in narrative and the subsequent internal adjustments in her characters—the emotional slopes and gradients that make each film a pleasure to watch. It’s a quietly compelling sensibility that is served well by Kim’s highly naturalistic approach to her craft.
When asked if she would consider filming in her home again, however, Kim replies with a resounding no. “At the end of the day, our house was often wrecked,” she says, “and I still had two kids to take care of. But ultimately, the reason we were able to shoot here is that we have really supportive people. Friends did the catering, other friends introduced us to the rodeo owners, and a couple others helped us take care of Sky and Jessie. It’s just a great community.”