It's almost been two years since So Yong Kim's debut feature, the affecting In Between Days, surprised me with its humanity and insight. A quiet movie about a Korean girl struggling toward adulthood as a Toronto transplant portrayed the adolescent struggle without mawkishness or cliché. When watching In Between Days, one had the feeling it wasn't a film that was written, but one that was observed. For a director on her first feature, Kim showed a confidence and a clarity that was impressive.
Since then, I've been eagerly awaiting Kim's second movie, and I'm happy to say that Treeless Mountain doesn't disappoint. Bucking the usual sophomore mistake of growing up and going all out, Kim pulls back, tacking younger characters and making the story even smaller and more direct.
Treeless Mountain is set in South Korea, where two very young girls, the elementary-school-aged Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and her little sister Bin (Song Hee Kim), live with their mother (Soo Ah Lee). Even at this tender age, Jin is already handed some responsibility. It's up to her to pick Bin up from the babysitter after school, a task she is generally tardy for, regularly getting sidetracked by her excitement at being a kid. Though mom appears to be loving, she doesn't really have her act together, and some undefined trouble forces her and the girls to leave town. They go and visit her sister-in-law, Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim), who has agreed to let the girls stay while their mother goes off in search of their father. We are never sure what happened to him, but we really aren't meant to be. The camera is always with the little girls, and what knowledge we receive of the adult world only comes from what they see and hear. So Yong Kim is working in that space where children are exiled, where they are part of the world at large but also inhabit their own private universe. As Treeless Mountain suggests, though, this secret realm can be both a positive byproduct of childhood and also a defense mechanism to keep out the hurt.
When their mother leaves, she gives Bin and Jin a piggybank and tells them that if they behave, Big Aunt will give them a coin. When the bank is full of money, she will return. Both girls are young enough to take her at her word, and they begin hunting down coins in earnest, especially when Big Aunt, who appears to have a drinking problem, begins to disappear or just plain passes out. The girls sell roasted crickets to neighborhood boys and even come up with a scheme to trade their larger denomination coins for pennies. One big coin becomes many little coins, and the pig fills faster. The older Jin has a grim determination about her. She is ready to get things done even when Bin would rather play or snack on the crickets herself. Even their clothes show the divide: Jin wears a sensible track suit, Bin a shiny dress with fur collars suitable for a fairy princess. Her resolve is enough for both of them, and when the full bank doesn't call their mother home, so is her disappointment.
With both of her movies, So Yong Kim makes the viewer feel like he or she is privy to a way of life that would otherwise be hidden away. Sitting on a bus bench with the girls watching for their mother, walking with them and tasting their shame as they hungrily rely on a neighbor's kindness for a snack, we get to see their desperation, love, and ingenuity first hand. Everything is shown, nothing is told, we are left to intuit and feel, and the experience becomes immersive. We hunger and yearn just like Bin and Jin. To get such honest emotional responses from such young girls is truly amazing. I assume hardly anyone in this cast is a professional actor, and so it's all the more impressive that Kim manages to pull these performances out of them. The girls never come off as anything less than real, Treeless Mountain could practically be passed off as documentary. Cinematographer Anne Misawa deserves plenty of credit for this, too, as I imagine shooting a film like Treeless Mountain requires staying out of the performance space while still having to move in close to get the shot. You can't disrupt the flow, but yet you have to somehow capture it. Her style is simple and off the cuff. There is no added lighting (or, at least, no obvious use of such), just as there are no editing tricks, no musical score, nothing that would bust the neorealist illusion.
Before Treeless Mountain is over, the girls will be forced to go through one more change. When their mother writes to tell them that she won't be coming back soon, Big Aunt must send the sisters to their grandparents' farm. It's in this rural setting that the children will finally receive some reward for taking care of each other, and they will find some compassion in the world at long last. Careful to avoid being contrived, Kim allows some cute, childish moments. Despite the selfishness that has exiled them, Bin and Jin are still capable of being generous when generosity is bestowed upon them. It's a very sweet scene, and I applaud So Yong Kim for not feeling that she needed to be unrelentingly downbeat in order to make a meaningful film. Treeless Mountain shows you can tug at the heartstrings without being condescending.
I suppose to be fair I should note that not everyone is going to love Treeless Mountain. It requires patience and attentiveness. You can't passively watch it, you must be there for every moment, no matter how tiny, or the cumulative effect of So Yong Kim's reality won't work on you. If you give it the time it deserves, though, Treeless Mountain will pay you back with interest.
The optional English subtitles appear in yellow and are easy to read, paced nicely and well written.
So Yong Kim and Bradley Rust Gray have recorded a comprehensive audio commentary for Treeless Mountain that covers all aspects of this unique production in exacting detail. Their memories of the day-to-day shoot and working with these young actors makes for an engaging dialogue that offers rare insight into a rare cinematic effort. So Yong Kim also speaks at a Q&A at the Film Forum in NY, detailing some of the aspects of the production. This includes photos from the shooting locations. This featurette runs just under fifteen minutes.
There are three short deleted scenes and four outtakes from existing scenes that are less interesting as excised material and more essential for how they illustrate So Yong Kim's directorial style as we hear her instruct the girls from behind the camera.
A short interview with the young girls, Kim Hee Yeon and Kim Song Hee was conducted by So Yong Kim after receiving honors at the Altin Koza Film Festival in Turkey. It's a breezy segment, not terribly revealing, but cute.
A gallery of posters and trailers for other Oscilloscope releases rounds out the disc. It includes the trailer for Treeless Mountain.