This weekend I caught the only area screening of So Yong Kim’s In Between Days at the Harvard Film Archive. This is Kim’s first feature (from 2006), and while lauded on the festival circuit, it spent so much time languishing for lack of a distributor that it appeared on indiewire’s favorite undistributed films list. (It’s been picked up by Kino International).
Inspired by the Korean-American filmmaker’s childhood in an L.A. suburb, the film centers on young teenager Aimee (Jiseon Kim), a recent immigrant to an unknown North American city with halting English language skills and her all consuming friendship and crush on Tran (Taegu Andy Kang). This scenario allows the filmmaker to address the social awkwardness of adolescence but also to capture the particulars of the Asian-American experience, and for the most part Kim gracefully succeeds at both endeavors.
Narratives of teen troubles are often riddled with clichés, but Kim avoids many of these with a spare narrative visual style and camerawork that closely and almost claustrophobically follows Aimie as she goes through her daily details— trudging across hard-packed snow, hanging out on a highway overpass, and dreaming in bed while waiting for Tran to call (many critics as well as my film companion on Saturday pointed out that this appears to be a Dardennian influence, linking this film with 1999's Rosetta). The hand-held camera work also has the effect of disorienting the audience (where are we, anyway?), but this further demonstrates the self-centeredness of the teen years, when you’re tightly focused on your own circle of friends and the rest of the world doesn’t need to exist.
The minimal dialogue between Aimie and Tran reflects their inability to communicate, as they avoid what they want to say and instead state the exact opposite of what they mean-- resulting in a type of emotional protection that ultimately only works in the short term. Tentative steps forward often require some steps backward. Each move and comment, though small, is calculated, measured, so as not to provide the other with the upper hand. When Aimie’s attachment to Tran as crush, friend and cultural crutch is threatened by an Americanized Korean girl, Michelle, Aimie counters this by remaining ambiguous about her relationship with her friend Steve, and makes Tran beg when he needs a place to stay one night. Remaining cool and detached is always important, as when Aimie decides to sacrifice a much-needed English class in order to afford to buy a bracelet for Tran, later explaining it’s just something she casually saw and picked up for him.
Although Aimie’s pain is easily understood through the film's countless closeups, So Yong Kim sometimes feels the need to hammer home this point in more familiar and banal forms. Inserted throughout the film are voiceovers of Aimie’s “letters” to her absent father: a slow, bored whine juxtaposed with still shots of industrial desolation. These stills, while beautiful, are overwrought, as if the film needed to include the requisite blame on a parent for pain or neglect. Although possibly intended to point out the difficulties of the immigrant experience, and as the reason for her dependence on Tran, these sequences are a strange contrast to Aimie’s otherwise inarticulate nature. Also problematic here is Aimie’s mother, who may be physically present but is unable to make any real emotional connection to her daughter.
However, since I can identify with the plight and pain of being a teenage girl, I forgave a lot of the film’s missteps, and appreciated the film’s emphasis on isolation and its avoidance of traditional structure. Although I don’t have a romanticized vision of the director and this film, as some critics do, In Between Days is a worthy and often fresh approach to addressing both assimilation and the distinctly female experience of adolescence.