Continuing in the semi-autobiographical mode of In Between Days, a story about an introverted Korean immigrant to North America navigating young love, Treeless Mountain mines Kim's childhood feelings of abandonment when her mother left her and her younger sister in the care of relatives. Treeless Mountain doesn't track Kim's personal narrative precisely, but there's enough authenticity bereft of sentimentality here to favorably distinguish it from more mawkish films about childhood such as The Year My Parents Went on Vacation.
Treeless Mountain opens with seven-year-old Jin (Kim Hee-yon) already a latch-key kid forced to assume responsibility for her preschool-aged sister Bin (Kim Song-hee). Their mother (Lee Soo-ah), overwhelmed emotionally and financially following abandonment by the girls' father, decides to leave them in the care of her sister-in-law while she tries to reconcile with her husband. Big Aunt (Kim Mi-hyang) reluctantly agrees to take in the girls, but she's an indifferent and miserly woman who expects the girls to stay out from under foot when they're not doing chores. She doesn't register them for school and is often absent or too drunk to feed them, but to her credit she's never abusive out of spite or malice.
At her parting, their mother left the girls with a piggybank, telling them that Big Aunt would give them coins when they were good and that by the time the bank was full she'd be back. Taking their mother's words literally, the girls spend much of their time trying to fill the piggybank by capturing crickets to sell as a roasted delicacy and by exchanging higher denomination coins for lower ones. Though the viewer will anticipate the outcome of this scheme from the start, it's no less heartbreaking to see their disappointment when the bank is filled but their mother hasn't returned.
A letter from mom does eventually come, but it is not good news. She can neither care for them herself nor ask Big Aunt to continue indefinitely as their caregiver. Jin and Bin are passed along to their elderly, impoverished grandparents who live on a traditional Korean farmstead. Though again there's no suggestion that the girls will return to school or that they will otherwise have the kind of life that they might have experienced had their parents stayed together and remained in Seoul, the ending is not downbeat. Through action so subtly constructed that you might miss its implication if you do not pay close attention, a couple of closing scenes reassure us that the girls may be able to avoid the unhappy fates of their depressive mother and hard-hearted aunt.
The story is slight, and the dialogue is spare, but Treeless Mountain is a wonder nonetheless. The acting is naturalistic, understated and believable throughout, especially the performances of the young, first-time actresses Kim Hee-yon and Kim Song-hee who were just seven and five, respectively, when the film was shot. Though their performances are obviously constructed from multiple takes and additional dialogue recording, it's a testament to them and to the filmmaker that they are consistently believable.
Video & Audio:
This release sports both 2.0 and 5.1 audio options though curiously the audio defaults to the 2.0 option. The 5.1 mix sounds convincing without being showy. Audio is mostly directed to the front, with rear surround coming in typically only for ambient sound.
Optional English subtitles are available for the Korean audio track.