Dawning (USA, 2022) [CAAMFest 2022]

A mix of drama, thriller, and horror, Dawning is an examination of trauma how some people cope by writer-director Young Min Kim.

Haejin Park (Kim Ellis) is a therapist specializing in trauma who has been asked to go see her sister Soojin Park (Veronica Kim) at her childhood farm in California, who is dealing with a recent breakup. It is a sudden trip and her assistant must now change all of her appointments. Haejin may feel the need to suddenly see Soojin because some of the memories of her own trauma begin rising to the surface. The therapist has been searching for information on antidepressants (which she takes) and hallucinations. Haejin has been experiencing brutal nightmares, which worsen after arriving at the isolated family farm.

Dawning opens with the sisters’ father committing suicide. As expected, it is a severely traumatic and life-altering event for Haejin, Soojin, and their mother. Not long after arriving at the farm, the sisters are discussing Soojin’s breakup but it becomes apparent that Soojin holds some animosity toward Haejin for leaving the farm and making a life for herself elsewhere. There is some tension brewing. After some alarming occurrences at the farm, Haejin decides to leave, attempting to sneak away in the night. What happens next is an almost complete departure from the original horror narrative and the film becomes something else. It is still disconcerting, though for different reasons. We now discover the real trauma that Haejin suffered, and that she continues to suffer from. The film’s cold open is an extension of Haejin’s trauma and we eventually discover her truth.

This may be director Young Min Kim’s first feature, but he has an extensive resume as a visual effects artist on numerous Hollywood films. Although it’s an indie production, Dawning is somewhat reminiscent of A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), albeit in a more stripped-down way. The first half has a similar feel to Kim Jee-woon’s classic, while the second diverges from that type of storytelling to something more along the lines of a straight drama. It becomes more heartbreaking than scary, but still no less frightening as distorted memories and reality collide. The sisters are each disconnected from life in their own ways, and the cinematography effectively brings that across. Dawning becomes less a visual metaphor for trauma and more of a potentially accurate portrayal, so some viewers may feel triggered by that shift.

With its brief 73-minute runtime, Dawning, has an intimate tone. Much of the film focuses exclusively on Heijin and Soojin, though there are a handful of secondary characters that help to drive the story to its poignant and tragic conclusion. Kim Ellis and Veronica Kim do a remarkable job of carrying the emotional story to the final act, which is just as stunning as the film’s beginning. The mix of English and Korean makes it more realistic and relatable. Dawning packs quite a blow, and Young must be commended for taking a chance on doing something different.

Dawning was shown at CAAMFest 2022.