Rarely has a child’s POV been as evocatively emulated as it is in So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain, a work of tremendous poise and poignancy that assumes and articulates the perspective and emotional tenor of its two juvenile protagonists. Kim’s film is reportedly semi-autobiographical, which goes some way toward explaining the South Korean director’s striking ability to tap into the anxiousness and frightening disorientation that engulfs pint-sized sisters Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and Bin (Song Hee Kim) after their mother dumps them in the care of a cold, selfish relative. Yet personal familiarity with certain aspects of their story can only account for a share of this sophomore effort’s grace and power, as considerable credit must also go to Kim’s formally assured, tender aesthetic, which touchingly suggests the way her characters see, feel, and think about a world in which they are—for all their amazing intelligence, humor, compassion, and courage—helpless charges of adults whose thoughts and behavior are inscrutable to young eyes.
In Seoul, seven-year-old Jin is removed from school by her mother and, along with little sister Bin whom she helps care for (and whose preferred outfit is a blue princess gown), is shuffled off to live with Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim). The motive for this change is that the girls’ mom, already barely capable of providing for her offspring, is determined to locate the good-for-nothing husband who, for unspecified reasons, left the family. As evidenced by their last dinner together, during which her attempt to show her mother a 100% homework grade is barely acknowledged, Jin is a kid conditioned to loneliness, though her mother’s abandonment cuts extra deep thanks not only to its suddenness but, also, the subsequent discovery that Big Aunt is a worthless drunk and two-bit swindler who deems her new responsibilities an unwelcome burden. Out of school and often left to their own devices, and tightly clinging to their mom’s promise that she’ll return once they’ve successfully filled a plastic red piggy bank with coins, the girls bide their time catching, grilling, and selling grasshoppers to hungry schoolchildren, an entrepreneurial endeavor fit for a plucky fairy tale.
Treeless Mountain, however, is far from fantasy, as Kim’s prime concern is credibly inhabiting her protagonists’ headspace. A litany of close-ups strike a balance between empathy and objectivity, refusing to exaggerate the feelings gripping their hearts or unduly sentimentalize their plight. Kim achieves a simultaneous detachment and warmth in these compositions, her honest, nonjudgmental depiction of their actions and reactions creating a potent degree of sensitivity, as well as insight. An early shot of Jin at school, quietly and intently listening to her teacher’s lesson, affords an affectingly artless view of active thinking and learning, while Kim’s representation of adults—who are seen in stark close-ups featuring intimidatingly mature expressions, or often as dominating torsos looming over their grade-school counterparts—eloquently captures children’s dwarfed vantage point on life. Whether teary-eyed over their mother’s absence, shamefully silent about a bedwetting incident, or happily skewering insects for food, Jin and Bin prove fully realized, distinctively un-precocious tykes whose rollercoaster experiences are treated without embellishment, and with great regard for their legitimacy and value.
Both nonprofessionals, stars Hee and Song’s ignorance of typical kid-actor tricks and gimmicks results in guileless performances whose naturalism further enhances the proceedings’ sequences of joy and foreboding. Panoramic interludes of gorgeous sky and land initially come across as excessively expressionistic. Their progression from day to night and from cloudy to clear, however, eventually operates in harmony with opening statements about learning to tell time, as well as Jin and Bin’s extended, up-and-down odyssey, which leads them from Big Aunt to their grandparents’ farm, a destination that, accompanied by more expansive cinematographic framing, completes their transition from urban to rural and from flux to stability.
Clear-sighted and unpretentious, Treeless Mountain begins as a portentous what-if scenario along the lines of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s arresting Nobody Knows. Yet the film so persuasively affixes itself to its protagonists’ outlook—in a first-person peek into a piggy bank, or a glance at an elderly woman working—that, as Jin and Bin finally find a home for themselves, it gradually develops into a sanguine snapshot of the resiliency of youth, the tenacity of hope, and the reciprocal nature of kindness, all encapsulated by the closing sight of two young girls merrily singing and skipping through the tall grass.