A lot of romance films end when the relationship starts. Just as the protagonist and her love interest finally confess their love for each other, they are whisked off into a happily ever after as the credits roll. Director Michelle Kim’s The Tree Inside does none of those things. Rather than romanticizing the process of falling in love, the film instead looks at what it means to stay in love.
The film opens at the very beginning of a relationship. Myra, our protagonist, meets David, a schoolteacher, at a park. After musing about how she hates the way that trees die when fall comes, David offers a poignant thought:
“Maybe you were a tree in your past life.”
The metaphor of the tree serves as a natural reference point for Myra. Unlike those around her, Myra finds herself resisting the coming and going of seasons. As her relationship with David develops, she confronts her own inflexibility and her anxieties about long-term relationships. The backdrop of British Columbia, in its vivid colors, matches the film’s poetic feel. The shots feel cinematic without sacrificing a sense of intimacy, the lighting and soundtrack underscore the tones of connection and loss.
Some abrupt cuts and audio mixing issues throughout the film occasionally distract, but are forgivably sparse after the first act of the film. Despite these technical issues, the film still shines.
Kim excels at capturing a genuine sense of intimacy between the characters. She allows the viewer to empathize with the couple, to see them as human rather than putting them on unattainable pedestals, and it keeps the viewer invested throughout the ups and downs in the relationship. The chemistry of the actors made even more impressive through the context of Kim’s unflinching examination of a deteriorating relationship, Kim herself cites her favorite scene as a 15 minute long argument between the couple. “I feel like it captures the tensions, realities, and ugliness that comes with relationships,” she says.
This honesty is likely related to the fact that Kim shot the film. The crew was very sparse – only one or two cameramen, and many of the actors were selected from friends and family. Kim, who plays Myra in the film, had her own brother cast as Myra’s brother – and their interactions in the film are true to life. Even the story itself is, in some ways, a reflection of Kim’s own experiences. “Making this film was a true exercise in vulnerability,” says Kim, “I often say it would have been cheaper and less embarrassing to have gone to therapy instead.”While the film has its youthful, happy moments, it tends to take a somber tone overall. Kim attributes some of this to the traditions of Korea cinema. With several of her relatives working in the Korean film industry, Kim and her co-director, Rob Leickner, are heavily influenced by its style. Kim says that she loves the “subversive quality” to its stories, and its “acceptance of sadness and darkness;” storytelling that is not “bound to happy endings”.
The Tree Inside is refreshingly intimate. Its tone is poetic but honest; gentle yet bittersweet. It is a film that, at heart, examines what it looks like to cope with change. And it’s an exciting step forward for Asian American film makers who are telling their own stories – “ugliness” and all.
“The Tree Inside” screens on Saturday, September 24 at 9pm at the Northwest Film Forum as part of the Local Sightings Film Festival which shows new films by Northwest filmmakers. 1515 – 12th Ave. on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. 206-267-5380 or go to www.localsightings.nwfilmfo