Fragile Glimpses of First Love: “In Between Days”

Filmmaking partners So Yong Kim and Bradley Rust Gray are best known for their award-winning sophomore films as directors, Kim’s Treeless Mountain (co-written and produced by Gray) and Gray’s The Exploding Girl (co-written and co-produced by Kim).  Actually, “best known” is a tricky term for films so discreet and contemplative. These are not sensational, star-packed Indiewood productions, but the real deal, part of a wave of grassroots Amerindies meant for an attentive audience that can see through Hollywood hype. Kim and Gray are part of a movement that includes filmmakers Kelly Reichardt  (Wendy and Lucy), Lance Hammer (Ballast), Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo), Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) and Lee Isaac Chung (Lucky Life).

Still, even for the watchful, patient viewer in tune with such films, Kim’s directorial debut, In Between Days, is easily overlooked. Its dramatic arc is as small as the flight path of a butterfly in a broom closet. A shy Korean teen nurses a crush on her best friend in Toronto, a more outgoing fellow immigrant; he likes her only as friend, maybe; she mopes and pines her days away, waiting for him to have a change of heart.

Sounds like an arresting short film, perhaps, but In Between Days works out as a gently spellbinding feature-length experience. Kim and cinematographer Sarah Levy stick close to leads Jiseon Kim (the girl, Aimee) and Taegu Andy Kang (the boy, Tran) in every scene, watching for changes in the chemistry between them and cutting away on some quietly resonant/ambivalent notes.

Even when the camera shakes and the focus goes momentarily dizzy, the results are beautifully in touch with these kids’ ephemeral moods.

I was astonished to learn that this film, with its expressive use of low light and stark Toronto locations, was shot not in 35mm or Super 16mm (as was Treeless Mountain) or even HD (like The Exploding Girl), but on standard definition digital video. In fact, In Between Days was photographed with the workhorse indie camera of last decade, the Panasonic DVX-100. Some incredibly cinematic films have been captured on this relatively cheap camcorder, including the poetic war doc Iraq in Fragments. Since all standard definition mini-DV cameras sport sensors too small to produce film-like shallow depth-of-field, the filmmakers used a reliable trick that Kim and Gray often employ to conjure the intimate atmosphere they need: They shot nearly the entire film on telephoto lenses. On long lenses, the range of focus  becomes a sliver, especially when, as Levy does in the night scenes and some of the interiors here, one lights for a bare minimum of exposure.

The results are beautiful in an unconventional, un-Hollywood way. By Hollywood standards, some might call these images “ugly” or “low-production value,” but I find them perfectly suitable to the fragile feelings of love and friendship in this modest wonder of a film.

Even when the lens is relatively short, Kim and company devise simple ways to give visual lyricism to the characters’ emotions, such as the reflections on glass in this bus stop scene…

or a simple image of furious scribbling that fills the frame just as Aimee’s longing for Tran fills the room.

Aimee’s crush isn’t simply the standard schoolgirl variety. Her loneliness is profound, as illustrated by her frequent imaginary chats with the father who has abandoned her and her mother. During her diaristic reveries with Dad, we see sleepy, grainy, twilight images.

This is the kind of visual intelligence Wong Kar-Wai displayed in low-budget gems like As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild and Fallen Angels (films which, I contend, could have easily been shot on the DVX, if such technology existed in the ’90s).

In Between Days begins and ends on a close-up of its female protagonist’s somber face; in between, that face traces a journey familiar to anyone who has ever been young, lonely and suffered the fever of first love.

Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist who writes for Big Media Vandalism, Roger Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents and Slant/The House Next Door.

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