Review: "Treeless Mountain"

There has been a trend in independent cinema recently toward small, sparse narratives about people dealing with personal and economic hardships.

You could see this as part of an overarching trend brought on by the state of the world economy, or as part of a new movement in filmmaking (an controversial opinion held by A.O. Scott). No matter how you look at it, it's a growing trend both in American cinema (Goodbye Solo, Wendy and Lucy), and abroad.

The latest in this new trend is So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain, a delicate, shimmering little gem about two young girls, six year old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim), and her four year old sister, Bin (Song Hee Kim), who are left with their Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim) while their mother (Soo Ah Lee) goes in search of their deadbeat father.

Before she leaves, she gives the girls a piggy bank, and tells them that Big Aunt will give the girls a coin every time they are good and obedient, and that when the bank is full, then she will return.

But Big Aunt is an uncaring, self centered woman who has never had to deal with children before, and to her, Jin and Bin are nothing but an inconvenience. Coins are out of the question. The girls soon realize that if they ever want their mother to return, they're going to have to find a way to fill the piggy bank themselves. So they begin to cook and sell grasshoppers on street corners, filling their piggy bank coin by coin and every day rushing to the bus stop to wait, but it becomes increasingly evident that their mother may not be returning as soon as they had hoped.

Based on events from director So Yong Kim's own life, Treeless Mountain takes an unmistakably childlike view of the world as seen through the eyes of its two remarkable leads. Not only are these kids irrepressibly adorable, but with her naturalistic, simple style, Kim has captured two extraordinary performances that carry the film with great emotional resonance.

Kim skillfully avoids the trap of sentimentality that so often engulfs childhood films. She eschews nostalgia for realism, and her camera seems to capture life as it unfolds, following the two girls along on their adventures. Left alone to their own devices, Jin and Bin step up to become almost more adult than the adults in the film, taking responsibility for themselves in the absence of their beloved mother. When we first meet Jin, she is beginning elementary school but still wetting the bed (an accident for which her younger sister often gets blamed). By the time the film ends, Jin has become a little adult, evolving out of necessity into a default guardian for Bin and a decider of her own destiny. The film is not moving toward any specific conclusion, and it leaves us not with the tidy ending we expect or want, but with the idea of growing up and moving on. Both girls have found home not in a specific place, but in each other.

Treeless Mountain is a tender and poingnant testament to the strength and self-reliance reliance of children in the face of adversity, achieved without music or distracting directorial flourishes. It is a simple, straightfoward film that doesn't focus on narrative so much as tone and feeling. It actually feels like childhood, and that it is being captured in real time. There is a melancholic innocence at work here, juxtaposed with the tender warmth of Kim's camera, and we are left with the question of whether childhood innocence has survived or ended too early. It's ultimately a bittersweet but uplifting answer, as Bin and Jin's carefree songs fade into the distance, that life moves on, ready or not.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

TREELESS MOUNTAIN; Directed by So Yong Kim, Stars Hee Yeon Kim, Song Hee Kim, Soo Ah Lee, Mi Hyang Kim, Boon Tak Park; Not Rated; In Korean w/English subtitles; Opens today, 4/23, at the Film Forum in NYC.


Charles Lyons said…
Seeing this hopefully this weekend.
Great review, makes me want to see the film even more.
Sam Juliano said…
Yep, I will also be seeing this over the weekend, although Saturday night is taken by a new play by Ethan Coen. I think Sunday, but I am not at all surprised by your excited and passionate reaction here Matthew, this one has really been getting some excellent press. It's great to hear that there are two 'extraordinary' performances here!

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