Treeless Mountain

11/01/2009

South Korea / 2008 / Korean

Directed by So Yong Kim

With Hee-Yeon Kim, Song-Hee Kim, Mi-Hyang Kim

Still from 'Treeless Mountain'

Korean-American filmmaker So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain follows two sisters, Jin (aged 7) and Bin (aged 5) as their single mother takes them from the life they have known to go live with an aunt who seems not particularly disposed to caring for young children. The girls’ mother seems over-eager for Jin to grow out of her childhood trappings and replace her as an emotional anchor. As a rehearsal for abandoning them, she leaves Jin in charge of Bin after they arrive at a provincial town center, with quite unsurprising results. Their aunt vacillates between being castigatory and absent, between bitterly aggressive and nearly catatonic – there is one scene in which she has passed out from drink, and the girls must go searching for food.

Truant and free to move about their aunt’s neighborhood, Jin and Bin work at a scheme to sell roasted grasshoppers to schoolchildren, and in some of the film’s sweetest moments, befriend Hyun, a developmentally-disabled boy who lives nearby, and are looked after by his mother, who provides one of the few sympathetic adult characters. Jin compulsively returns to the bus stop where their mother departed from, even when any hope of a return visit has long been extinguished.

There are aspects of the girls’ internal world – that is, the bond that expresses itself in the interactions between them – that seems to be little-changed by their repeatedly upended external lives. This is a relationship between compatriots, more complex and meaningful than one between siblings. It exists between two people who share trials and fascinations, and who retain their affirmative personalities for the sake of, or more accurately, at the unspoken behest of one another.

The camera movements are lithe and nervous, the edits have the feel of measured and exquisitely paced jump cuts. Dialogue and reactions are separated by narrative time but not space or changes, little interim moments that go lost and unexamined. And yet nothing feels glossed over. The film quietly ponders the depth of the characters’ onscreen gestures, furtive movements of their eyes.

Treeless Mountain5 Aesthetically a documentary, the film has a cast of all non-actors, who conduct themselves like real-life subjects who are particularly embarrassed of being in front of a camera; they speak in hurried murmurs, fumble with objects and glance about them. So Yong Kim directed the two young leading actresses by giving them an economy of lines to repeat, tied to some broad actions, and let them simply exist within the mise-en-scene, with little emphasis on motivation. The resultant quality is largely what constitutes the atmosphere of the film, rendering a study of the characters’ reasoning, a deep reading of their psychology, far less desirable than simply dipping into the film’s absorbing details, the ambient sounds and gestural density that make it delightful and touching.

Conceived when writer-director Kim was taking a short story writing class in 2003, Treeless Mountain is an affecting tale, but one that is refined of excessive dramatic weight or needless histrionics, its quiet beauty still intact. The film speaks the language of the little girls, hanging onto their muffled words, the nonverbal expressiveness that feels quite alien when nestled in the troubling world of adults. Most importantly though, it remembers. Each scene that has transpired leaves a luminous imprint in the air, as richly layered as it is fragile and diaphanous.

Treeless Mountain2

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2 Responses to “Treeless Mountain”

  1. Ellen Sisco said

    Lovely review. I want to see it!

    • chaiwalla said

      Thanks for the kind words!
      It’s possible your local library system has a copy of the DVD. If so, I strongly recommend it.
      I’m looking forward to seeing another of Kim’s films, called ‘In Between Days.’

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