I feel positively churlish for disliking Treeless Mountain. Actually, I don’t dislike it; I just don’t really care for it, which is a distinction worth making. So Yong Kim’s second feature was drafted by A.O. Scott for his strange “Neo-Neo Realism” think-piece, and by the time I saw it—through no fault of the film—I was thinking about it both as a stand-alone aesthetic unit and as potentially symptomatic of what Scott was angling at. Taken on their own, both this film and Kim’s previous, In Between Days, are well-crafted, painstaking, deliberately “small” works that bring potentially invisible, underage female protagonists into the light. But they also seem like apprentice films, and therein’s the problem.
As Scott gets at in his piece, Treeless Mountain owes no small debt to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2004 Nobody Knows. This strikes me as pretty remarkable: To make a movie that’s openly indebted to (and greatly resembles) one made five years ago isn’t new, but it’s normally reserved for blockbusters with groundbreaking f/x. What Kim largely took from Nobody Knows (and a conversation with its maker) were tips on how to work with children and the knowledge that—post Ponette and way past Truffaut—you can make movies about very, very small children and try to penetrate their experience of the world without infantilizing or sentimentalizing either them or your movie. The performances (Korean non-pro kids Kim Hee-yeon and Kim Song-hee) are excellent, and you can tell there’s some kind of alchemic mix between what Kim’s aiming for and what the kids can process and project. The whole thing is well-filmed, competently paced and generally praiseworthy.
There’s only one element that’s nakedly grating, and it points to what’s wrong as a whole. Every now and then—presumably, to break scenes up—there’s shots of electric/telephone lines slashing against the sky, or buildings against the dying light, or something. These shots don’t have any real thematic function, and they’re not particularly elegant; they’re just placeholders, tasteful dollops of atmosphere. Now, critics who rail against “taste” and create a false binary where oppressive notions of “good taste” are somehow destroying “vitality” or “real art” or whatever are playing one of the most tiresome and pointless games possible; the real problem here isn’t Kim’s purposefully modest aesthetic, it’s that she’s borrowed it wholesale and doesn’t seem to have any true conviction to back it up, besides wanting to avoid sentimental crassness.
The child actors are about as good as they can be, and that’s obviously a tribute to the adult working with them. Sometimes, though, Kim’s camera will linger with infinite patience on their faces, waiting for something, and the connection never comes. Filming children generally involves projecting some of the film onto them, to compensate for what they don’t know how to do, but when Kim waits and waits and waits while the children stare, it becomes clear that sometimes a child staring is just a child staring. Kim’s aesthetic playbook, in large part, owes its studied patience and leisurely feel to Iranian cinema of the ’90s, but there’s a key difference: Iranian filmmakers use kids as part of an allegorical set-up that lets them dodge censorship. Kim really is just filming children, and that’s about it.
The plot revolves, with a pleasing lack of urgency, around two young girls left by their mother while she goes to find their father; first they stay with their alcoholic, brusquely indifferent aunt, and then with their grandparents on a farm. It’s in the warm sequences on the farm that Kim shines, as grandmother and girls bond and work; Kim’s naturally tendency to soft-pedal everything means that the film (whose plot, summarized, would seem to revolve around peril and danger) is a resolutely non-threatening zone. And I don’t want to fall into the trap I named above, of insisting the film left me naggingly unsatisfied because it’s “well made” or “avoids conflict” or whatever Ray Carney-ish claptrap we’re peddling today (or Richard Brody-ish, for that matter). It’s just that in avoiding making the kids cute or toying with your emotions, there’s not a whole lot left besides a handsome shell of a movie.
As a victim of Scott’s well-meaning but (to my mind) fatally flawed piece, Treeless Mountain should not, of course, be answerable for Scott’s thesis, so here’s a little kicker that really has nothing to do with the film. To my mind, there’s a world of difference, aesthetically, between what Scott considers the fellow travelers of Kim and Kelly Reichardt; still, it’s fair to say (at the very least) that he yoked together a bunch of resolutely modest films on downer topics. Let me suggest that this kind of well-meaning modesty, coming from an entirely laudable desire not to bully the audience, can be fatal when misused, and we have more than enough of it to go around. Better to look at recent movies like Hunger and Tony Manero as reminders that overwhelming aesthetic ambition (and a level of slickness that could easily fit into a music video), combined with in-your-face horrors might just be what we need right now.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.