“Stay in the moment with me,” Soojin (Veronica Park) asks her sister Haejin (Kim Ellis) in “Dawning,” flipping the script on how things normally go when Haejin is back on the family farm from her demanding work in the city as a therapist. When asking patients to spill out their feelings in front of her, self-reflection comes less easily to Haejin now than it once did, though at home it is inevitable when the land is littered with tragedy, with her own departure inspired years ago by the shocking suicide of her father (Felix Park). While the pain has obviously never left Haejin, the apple orchard has been bountiful in the time since, hiding the fact that anything grave ever happened there and writer/director Young Min Kim was taken with the the notion that a location where growth was relentless even when those who tilled the land were at a standstill for his chilling feature debut.
“As a low budget feature, we looked at what we could get for free and my grandparents are actually farmers, so it started with we have this location,” Young said on the eve of the film’s regional premiere at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival. “How can we bring a story that grounds itself from here?”
The soil was even more fertile than the filmmaker could’ve imagined, making the decision during production to expand what had been conceived as a short into a feature about the estranged siblings who reunite for the first time in years and while words continue to elude them about the darkest moments they’ve experienced together, the occasion of sitting in the same room allows to see each other’s perspective in a way they haven’t before after following their grief towards far different ends. If a certain tunnel vision has set in for both, it’s fitting that Young designs the film in such a way where the only way out is through, subverting horror elements to get at truly existential fears and getting crafty with the film’s point of view. Accomplished by any measure, “Dawning” is even more impressive when the circumstances under which it was made are taken into account, filmed in less than a week during a global pandemic, and with the film starting to roll out on the west coast, first this week at LAAPFF and subsequently available virtually through CAAMFest out of San Francisco next week, the director spoke about how he pulled it off and was able to explore mental health with such a conscientious lens.
How did this come about?
I’m wondering how much I should share. [laughs] Everyone knows that Asians haven’t been represented well, especially in American media, so that’s where I started. I went to film school at USC in hopes that I can be one of the people who helps push Asians [forward] in media. Maybe five years ago, I realized there’s a lot of pain and hidden traumas that happens in families and I started to see the same pain I’ve experienced with other friends and I asked around and noticed that a lot of them have these deep traumas that a lot of them don’t like to discuss, but they have to do with families and abuse behind closed doors and not being able to express what they need. That felt like the core of what I wanted to show to the audience [when] so many people who are going to be watching it have gone through similar situations, so I want to be able to tell them everyone’s going through the same thing and we’re here for each other.
How did you go about casting these actresses to play sisters?
Kim and Monica were through a casting agency that we went through and originally, it was supposed to be a short film. We went in thinking, “Yeah, we’ll shoot everything in six days” and three days in, we were like, “We had a lot more footage than we anticipated” and we did a rough cut of the first half and we were like, “I think we can make it into a longer project, so we added a couple scenes, took out a couple scenes, but we managed to shoot a full feature,” which is wild. They were both working actors, but it was their first feature, and because of COVID, we couldn’t meet up for rehearsals. But we did a lot of Zoom sessions and I’m sure it was difficult for them because they weren’t in the same room, and they were such professionals they were able to really doctor the tone that they need and honestly everything goes to the crew and the cast for being such soldiers to be able to do those long nights at the farm. The hotel was just a mile away and everyone had to really just be a team player and I’m just so thankful.
There’s a really intense dinner conversation where it hits exactly the desired tone of this where there’s nothing unnatural about it, but the talk itself is terrifying. What was it like to get that right?
It was tough. It suddenly shifts and that’s supposed to be the core of the movie [where] it’s about these two sisters who haven’t seen each other in so long, but there’s much deeper things that they’re not talking about, but on the surface they’re talking about “where do you sleep” and “what’s going on.” That was the longest scene to shoot, just because it’s such a dialogue heavy scene, but we were chasing the sun and half the conversation is just the sisters catching up and the other half turns into this bombardment of family history that’s so unprecedented, it was difficult, but it was a really gratifying shoot, especially with the actors to work through it.
Language becomes an interesting expression of where the sisters are in their relationship to one another when Haejin will occasionally speak English that her sister understands, but refuses to speak herself. What was it like figuring that out?
It’s Konglish — a mix of Korean and English, and honestly that’s just how I speak and I felt like why don’t we bring that authentic way we have a conversation in real life, especially with Korean American friends to the story because I’m sure a lot of other people will see that and be, “Exactly. I know exactly what that is.” People that speak Spanish, they mix English and Spanish together, so it felt like it was a perfect way to blend the diverse cultures that we had on set and also the story.
And Korean is my native language, but I’m a 1.5 generation, so I feel I’m more Americanized, and because this film is in Korean, we needed to sound correct to native Korean speakers. One of the biggest pet peeves I have is watching American films with non-American actors is that to most of the American audience, the Chinese or Korean sounds a certain way, but to native speakers, it’s very clear something’s wrong. It’s clearly someone who’s rehearsed a line multiple times as opposed to understanding how the dialect works, so we really focused on that. Thankfully Kim Ellis, [who plays] the older sister has a much better vocabulary than I do in Korean, so she was able to help me adapt the script to flow in the way that we both wanted. [The script] definitely changed a lot in that second language aspect.
Early on, there’s a shot in the therapist’s office that I can’t imagine you could’ve achieved practically, and after looking into your background, you have quite the resume in VFX. Was it exciting to figure out compositions with that mind?
Yeah, my daytime job is as a VFX artist, so we work on a lot of big film and TV and when it was time to create this film, hat was a big asset to have [where] I can look at a shot and go, “This is a simple VFX shot we can do. We know exactly what we need to get.” And all that post-VFX work that we were really able to easily get because my cinematographer Tim Toda had a good understanding of how I work, especially with the VFX, so he really trusted me and I really trusted him to be able to make that work together. There were a lot of [VFX] shots in this movie. I think it was 150 VFX shots.
That’s so much more than I would guess.
That’s more than I thought too. [laughs] I jumped in and I was like, “maybe 30,” and then it turned out to be 150. There were C-stands we had to get rid of and stingers everywhere that we had to clean up because it’s such a tight shoot, but it worked out.
You wouldn’t know it. Was making a feature a different experience?
Yeah, with a feature, it’s a much bigger team, so a lot of short films because of budget, the director’s usually shooting or maybe they have a friend who can shoot for a day, and then they’re editing and coloring and doing the music and sound. But because we knew we were going into a much bigger project, we went out to people we trusted and we had a dedicated sound supervisor and a colorist who that was her main job. There was a composer I’ve worked with for a while [too] and I think being able to trust them with the process and being able to say this is what we want to create, let’s work on it together, you form a bond together where you can really say this is a project we’re doing together and we have so much heart in it.
What’s it like getting to the finish line with it?
It’s great. I’ve lost a lot of sleep over it, but I’m so blessed to have even an opportunity to shoot something like this even if it’s with such a low budget and having all these friends and family who are able to support the vision that we had for this film. But I’m quick realizing that this is not the end. Distributing is a whole other beast and a filmmaker usually wants to get as many eyeballs on it as possible, so that’s what I’m learning – it’s not necessarily the finish line. It’s like a checkpoint and the finish line is when you start going to production for the next one. It never ends.