Film Reviews

Treeless Mountain So Yong Kim

Rating - 6/10

So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain is an ingenuous document of the emotional complexities and transitions of childhood wrapped in the universalism of human expression.  Even though the film is without the accompaniment of a contemporary or orchestral score, director Kim maintains a sense of urgency with her unique modus operandi, withdrawing title cards and utilizing a frequency of extreme close-ups of characters' faces, which augment the warmth provided by the handheld-like camera movements.  As Kim is exemplary of the new school of minimalist indie filmmakers, Treeless Mountain is a selectively sluggish feature with a one-note narrow focus, punctuated by still life chapter divisions, which manage to permeate the film's target audience but regrettably emphasize narrative and emotional absences as routinely as the intimacies.  Most notably, however, is the camera's consistent undertaking of the parental role in the face of the two young female protagonists' variable and figuratively apparitional mother figure.

In one of the most significant scenes in the film, seven-year-old Jin leaves the supervision of her aunt in the small town of Heunghae to the care of her grandmother in the rural Korean countryside.  Her younger sister of five, Bin, sits across the aisle of the bus and inquires about the reappearance of their mother to which Jin brokenly replies, "Mom's not coming, stupid."  At this precise moment, Treeless Mountain officially reaches its intention as a premature coming-of-age story.  The hasty opening scenes in the film depict the modern normalcy of a single mother with her oldest daughter in a Seoul elementary school and youngest in a daycare, but the uncommunicativeness between them and repressed financial and maternal hardship insinuate the inevitability of tumult.  Of course, due to the subdued realism of Kim's directing, the descent is more of a gradual drifting away from integrated urban culture.  Jin and Bin are led astray from their high-rise apartment in Seoul City to a village home in Heunghae, and finally to a farmhouse.  A feeling of helplessness permeates each of these transitional periods, a product of adults' mismanagement and irresponsibility (most significantly Big Aunt's alcoholic exploitations and impulsive disappearances).  At Jin and Bin's vulnerable ages, it is their precise route to an ultimate mistrust of adults, and the film bluntly stresses this apprehension through omission of official names.

Jin and Bin's nicknames for various middle-aged adults like "lady," "mister," and the familial "mom" and "Big Aunt" are veracious in that they capture a child's experiences of relating to the external world based on prefixes and outward appearances.  However, the refusal to incorporate formal names into the story also unveils an ulterior layer to the children's designations; the majority of middle-aged adults that Jin and Bin cross, with the exception of Hyun's mother, are foreign and neglectful toward them.  It is only within the film's final act that a humane investment is reciprocated by the merciful grandmother, who restores their faith and good nature.  While Jin and Bin have endured repeated abandonment, they seem revived and motivated while working as modest farmhands.  As Jin walks along the hillside to fetch a pale of water, she segues into song as Bin playfully harmonizes.  "I want to walk up the side of a mountain.  I want to walk down the other side of the mountain.  I want to swim in a river, lie in the sun; I want to try to be nice... to everyone."  Through this reassured goodwill, the girls are defined as mature and evolved characters far beyond their years.  Once duped into performing menial tasks for their aunt and roasting grasshoppers to fill their piggy bank with coins to re-summon their mother, Jin and Bin learn to relish their cognizant independence.

As the film changes locale at three separate points, attempts to unify them materialize in static transitional frames, whether a low-angle of the cloudy sky, the longshot of the glowing horizon or a closeup still life of domestic objects.  The variance of distance between them is a bit disassociating, a breach from the collective nature of events, even if they share similar physical properties and tone.  Specific images like a dress draped over a clothing line on a damp evening or the inertia of a sunset amidst village homes are humane and naturalistic, complementary to the protagonists, but they are also a blunt and superfluous marker for lifelessness in a film which intends to showcase an imperative restlessness or gravity.  Treeless Mountain succeeds when it instead seamlessly assimilates the beauty of its environment into narrative for a rich and cohesive representation, like the early scenes in the bustling Heunghae market, which then beckon the viewer toward repeated viewings to uncover background detail.

The film's title is an evocation of an arduous journey or an upwards climb without the rewards of a traditional spiritual quest.  A third of the way through Treeless Mountain, Bin attempts to plant a tree atop a pile of rubble that overlooks the Huenghae bus stop where she expects her mother to return, but there's a deficiency of nutrients for its growth in the same sense that there's a lack of hope that the mother will return.  The barren, infertile environment and transient habitats for the girls are a commentary on the nature of the ever-changing modern family, which disallows a natural youthful development.  As the film concludes on a propitious note, the grandmother's life is consciously limited, and Jin and Bin may soon re-enter another similar problematic custodial cycle.