Singled out by Bong Joon-ho as a serious talent to watch, South Korean filmmaker Yoon Ga-eun has been paving her way by building worlds for children to fully believe in all on their own. In The World of Us and The House of Us, Georgia Davis looks at how Yoon carves out space for young voices.
Somewhere in South Korea, a child sits hand-crafting a friendship bracelet. Not so far away, another creates a house out of egg boxes, one far more colourful than the one she lives in now. Their view of the world is naïve and bright, untainted by bigger issues occurring around them. This is the world of Sun and Hana as curated by visionary director Yoon Ga-eun.
Named in Sight & Sound as one of Bong Joon-ho’s 20 upcoming directors of the 2020’s, South Korean filmmaker Yoon Ga-eun is an innovative storyteller. Yoon has made a name for herself through her carefully designed stories surrounding children that create unique worlds full of complexity and authenticity. Her two debut feature films, The World of Us and The House of Us have been met with worldwide acclaim, earning the director the coveted Blue Dragon Award for Best New Director in 2016.
Both of Yoon’s feature films are intimate portraits of the inner psyche of young children and share many similarities in style, nodding to the stories’ existence in the same universe – while each still has their own individual intention and challenge. The World of Us aims to look at the inward emotions of Sun, a child who craves friendship, whereas The House of Us looks at the actions of the rambunctious Hana, Yoomi and Yoojin, three children who are desperate to stop the world as they know it from falling apart. What brings both films together is the leading characters of Sun and Hana, bolstered by Yoon’s innate ability to absorb an audience into their individual worlds is profoundly the same. Though their approaches to their issues are direct opposites, Yoon directly utilises the same techniques to colour the neighbourhood both characters share whilst highlighting their individuality in every frame.
Yoon strips back anything that derives away from the experiences of her two protagonists, allowing Hana and Sun’s view of the world to be tangible within every frame. Yoon places all her shots at the children’s eye-level, which results in the adults in their lives being cropped out of frame. The director only uses diegetic sound to populate neighbourhoods, with the exact sounds as the children would hear it. Plus, if the children get distracted, so does the audience. In The World of Us, Sun is often distracted by the appearance of school bully Bora, so Yoon dulls the sound of new friend Jia’s chatter to focus solely on Bora and her friends just like Sun does. Beyond this, Yoon is unafraid both to linger and to speed past when necessary. The significant moments in the girls’ lives are held to attention whilst the joyful, and often scattered memories are sped past. In The House of Us, this is showcased in a playful montage. Hana, who acts as an older sibling to sisters Yoomi and Yoojin throughout the film, helps them to make a mess of their house in order to deter any potential buyers, but the trio are soon left to linger when their efforts gain an unexpected result.
The characters are given a world allowing full immersion, allowing them to flourish on screen under the guise of their actors. At the time of filming The World of Us, Choi Soo-in was a first-time actress who had been rejected from acting classes for her reserved nature. Yet it is her innate shyness that delivers Sun’s bittersweet feelings through facial expression alone. Kim Nayeon, the actress who portrays The House of Us’ Hana, boasts a similar story and it was her audition that changed Hana’s character from “a lively child with a bouncy way of talking” to a maturely optimistic 11-year-old. With actors perfectly suited to their roles, the dialogue flows beautifully. In an interview with the European Children’s Film Association, Yoon notes, “I wrote the dialogue very carefully, but never gave them the script. I explained the situation and then they played it how they understood it, in their own words.” The results of this structured improvisation are impeccable, giving the audience another layer of authenticity when realising the words of these characters are truly those of a child.
Yoon never lets her characters resort to clichés, instead framing them through her own eyes. She respects that children are often overwhelmed by circumstances beyond control, and gives them room to cope with these issues in their own way, even if they are not the healthiest coping mechanisms. For Sun, this comes through internalisation. She rarely reveals her true feelings, instead bottling them up and allowing them to consume her. On the other hand, Hana insists that a recreation of a family holiday will be everything they need to become the happy family they once were. However, when the smoke fades from Hana’s eyes and she realises that her efforts are futile against her parent’s impending divorce, Yoon crafts a moment that is a highlight of her filmography. Building up to the climax of The House of Us, Hana, Yoomi and Yoojin decide to take a trip to find Yoomi and Yoojin’s parents who are working away far from their family home. Instead, the trio find themselves lost somewhere on the Korean coast. In an act of desperation, 11-year-old Hana and nine-year-old Yoomi break down crying on the beach. The entire world has hung on their shoulders – with Hana desperately trying to stop her parents from divorcing and Yoomi trying to stop her parents selling their house – and finally it comes crashing down. Yoomi screams at Hana, who has acted as an older sister to her and six-year-old Yoojin, and the pair dissolve into tears as they let their emotions escape for the very first time. Even the young Yoojin cries, though her young whimpers are more from a need to join in with her older counterparts. The scene is as cathartic as it is devastating.
When looking at Yoon’s direction and moulding of her characters, the best example comes from a minor character. Bora first makes an appearance in The World of Us as one of Sun’s classmates and bullies. She later befriends Jia – Sun’s only friend – and as a result, Jia shuns Sun in order to be closer to her newest friend, before she would later shun Jia too. Unlike the arcs of Jia and Sun, Bora’s would remain relatively flat and leave audiences with a negative view of her until the end of the film. In an interview with the Korean Film Council, Yoon expresses her dislike for such an ending, and shares that this is the exact reason for Bora’s character to reappear in The House of Us. This time, Bora appears as the girlfriend of Hana’s older brother and is a victim in the pranks of Hana, Yoojin and Yoomi. This cameo allows for Bora to gain depth and show her growth.
Yoon Ga-eun allows her characters to breathe as if they were alive, and this magic is something injected into every frame. She allows Sun to be quietly demanding in her quest for friendship, and gives Hana the chance to curate a happy family of her own. But she also challenges these girls to be more than expected. Sun has a secretly venomous bite, whilst Hana is overly persistent in her desires, showing their faults to be just as prevalent as their strength. Yoon leaves no stone unturned when it comes to her characters. She gives them every opportunity to flourish, even if that means leaving their stories to develop off-screen. We won’t know for sure what happened to Sun and Jia after they were shunned by schoolmates, or whether Hana, Yoomi and Yoojin remain as connected as they once were. What we do know is that under the watchful eye of Yoon Ga-eun, their stories will remain well and truly theirs.
Georgia Davis (@thegndavis) is a Media graduate and freelance writer hailing from Nottingham. She loves all things film and K-Pop and is currently earning her TEFL qualification to teach English abroad. You can find her work at Flip Screen, Film School Rejects, Screen Queens and more.