In S. Korea, Adult Mysteries Through Children's Eyes

Hee-yeon Kim i i

hide captionTo find Hee-yeon Kim, who plays Jin, the film's director visted 14 elementary schools in Seoul.

Oscilloscope Laboratories
Hee-yeon Kim

To find Hee-yeon Kim, who plays Jin, the film's director visted 14 elementary schools in Seoul.

Oscilloscope Laboratories

Treeless Mountain

  • Director: So-yong Kim
  • Genre: Foreign
  • Running Time: 89 minutes

Unrated: Neglected children, alcohol abuse

Recommended

Song-hee Kim i i

hide captionLike Hee-yeon Kim, Song-hee Kim, who plays younger sister Bin, had no acting experience when she was cast for the film.

Oscilloscope Laboratories
Song-hee Kim

Like Hee-yeon Kim, Song-hee Kim, who plays younger sister Bin, had no acting experience when she was cast for the film.

Oscilloscope Laboratories

Abandoned by their mother, two little girls are shunted from relative to relative in Treeless Mountain, which is set in New York-based director So-yong Kim's native South Korea. While this minimalist tale could have been heartbreaking, what's most affecting is not the kids' plight but their pluck.

When the story begins, 6-year-old Jin (Hee-yeon Kim) is an assured Seoul schoolgirl who collects 5-year-old sister Bin (Song-hee Kim) daily on her way home. Then their mother (Soo Ah) gets some bad news — financial, apparently — and decides to go search for the girls' absent father.

Mom packs up Jin and Bin and takes them to a smaller city where they can stay with dad's sister, known only as Big Aunt (Mi-hyang Kim). Before she gets on the bus, their mother gives the girls a plastic piggybank and tells them she'll return when the pig is full of coins.

Big Aunt is no child-abusing Dickensian ogre. But she's less interested in Jin and Bin than she is in soju, the Korean equivalent of rotgut vodka. Sometimes, she's too hung over to get up and prepare breakfast for the girls — or even to get up off the floor.

Often left alone, the girls occasionally visit a local boy whose mother is happy to feed them cake. Jin starts a small business, catching, roasting and selling grasshoppers as a snack. The proceeds go into the piggy, but it's Bin who stumbles on a way to stuff the bank quickly.

When mom's return is indefinitely postponed, Big Aunt takes the kids farther away from modern South Korea, to live with their grandparents on a farm. Life is hard there, yet, in a way, also easier.

The girls soon bond with their grandmother (Boon-tak Park), whose domestic skills amaze them. The story's final scene, while far from offering dramatic resolution, is poignant and satisfying. It's also one of the few long shots in a movie that was filmed mostly in extreme closeup. Kim and cinematographer Anne Misawa focus tightly on the girls' faces and simulate their lines of vision, both to capture their intense expressions and to convey their state of mind.

The adult world is a jumble of mysteries and misrepresentations, which Jin and Bin try to decipher but can rarely penetrate. The two girls, who had never acted before, embody their characters' confusion and determination. There's nothing forced or stagy about the performances, which were improvised under Kim's close supervision.

The director has said that Treeless Mountain is not autobiographical, but was inspired by her childhood. (The movie's latter part was shot in and around her hometown, Heung Hae.) Perhaps that's why the details ring so true.

After mom leaves, for example, Bin wears her pale-blue princess costume every day, even as it becomes worn and dirty. And Jin's evolution from her mother's lieutenant to a free agent is fully rendered in a single line.

The film is punctuated by nature-scene still lifes and two lilting songs by American alt-rock bands. These embellishments aren't distracting but don't seem altogether necessary. The essence of Treeless Mountain is two earnest young faces.

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