Moving from city to village to countryside, from a wearied mother to a neglectful aunt to an elderly grandparent, Jin and Bin (Hee Yeon Kim, Song Hee Kim) cultivate an impressive itinerary for a couple of sisters aged six and four respectively. Having already been abandoned by one parent, Jin and Bin are uprooted from their Seoul home and taken to live with their “Big Auntie” so that their mother can search for their errant father. When not drunk or inexplicably absent Big Auntie can be found extorting money from neighbours or occasionally throwing together a not very nutritious looking meal. The sisters take to roasting grasshoppers alive and selling them on the street, the money earned intended not for filling their rumbling bellies but rather the piggy bank given to them by mom just before her departure. By the time it’s filled, she tells them, I’ll be back. The girls take this promise at face value and receive their first lesson in how our parents bullshit us. Their journey features passages so desperate as to make your head spin, yet by the end of Treeless Mountain we’re left not with a sense of despair over the cruelty and indifference of the world but rather one of confidence in the inherent resilience of children.
This gradual sense of consolation arises partially from Korean-American writer/director So Yong Kim’s carefully modulated script, and partially, and perhaps more significantly, from her willingness to let her child actors frequently take the lead. Kim’s second feature opens with a series of close-ups of Jin, listening to her teacher at school, going home to retrieve Bin from a neighbour, having supper, being scolded by her mother. As Kim explains during an interview featured on Oscilloscope’s new DVD, close-ups became the master shots while making Treeless Mountain, so that scene after scene had to be constructed to an unusual degree from images of the children’s faces fully immersed in the act of trying to understand what’s going on. If you know something about how movies are made such a strategy might seem like a gamble, but it plays out here as a very sound approach to telling a story centering on kids. The camera stays close so as to register the slightest transition, and it typically does so from the height of the kids themselves. Just as the movie doesn’t concern itself with plot points the kids wouldn’t have access to, so does it evoke something of their perspective. This surrendering to the experience of its characters and the untutored contributions of its actors is what makes Treeless Mountain memorable.
Kim’s willingness to observe rather than impose is also in keeping with the tenants of neorealism, and Treeless Mountain can certainly be regarded as a noble entry into the genre. It not only features kids in trouble—a neorealist staple—but also spends a good third of its running time monitoring its characters as they single-mindedly try to perform a simple task. You could argue that the relatively early fulfillment of this task—the girls manage to fill the piggy bank a good half-hour before the end—is a major flaw in the movie’s construction, letting the air out of the whole thing so that it just sort of drifts toward finale. But the lack of dramatic escalation is one of the things that actually make Treeless Mountain absorbing. The narrative is as unanchored as its characters. The shape of the movie feels right for the content. And there’s never really a dull moment. Hee Yong and Song Hee are extremely cute and also captivating in their train of discoveries, and their director’s judicious use of Ozu-like intermediary scenes—a sky bisected by power lines becomes a motif—endow the whole with a sense of even pacing and a unified aesthetic.
Oscilloscope’s disc is handsomely packaged, though some of the extras are insubstantial. The audio commentary from Kim and producer Bradley Rust Gray feels unprepared for, with the pair prompting each other to say something to fill the gaps. Better is the Q&A presided over by Kim after a screening at New York’s Film Forum. She discusses the casting—Hee Yong was found at her elementary school, Song Hee at an orphanage—and her technique to working with them. Despite the uniformity of last names the writer/director and her actors are none related to the other, yet there is a sense here of an artist’s refamiliarizing herself with her roots. Having been transplanted to the US at the age of 12, Kim lives in Brooklyn and made Treeless Mountain under the auspices of the Sundance Institute. But the village where much of the movie was shot was the same one where Kim grew up, and, having spent so much of her life abroad, her spoken Korean is actually less proficient that that of Hee Yong’s. So perhaps the conditions under which the movie was made formed a sort of equalizer—language has a great way of demolishing hierarchy. In any case it’s always a pleasure to see a movie about kids where the adults filing them aren’t always looking down.