Separated from my viewing of Watchmen by only a few hours, Treeless Mountain is the complete antithesis of the blockbuster mentality that fuels such things as Watchmen. So Yong Kim's second feature film emits self-assurance without losing the simplicity that made her first feature, In Between Days, so unique. Kim seems to have built a clarity into her pared-down portrait of two young sisters in South Korea forced to deal with their world being turned inside out.
Using events from her own life as a launching pad, Kim tells the story the story of Jin and Bin (age 6 and 4, respectively.) Privy to their perspective of the world, we the viewers analytically understand what the girls are only able to emotionally absorb: the strain on the face of their mother, the absence of their father, or the private talk with someone out in the hallway. By the time Jin comes home from school to find her mom packing to go visit their "big aunt," the confused look on Jin's face is already tearing a hole in our heart. Their mom leaves them with their aunt, promising to return soon. The aunt is not in much better circumstances than their mom, with little incentive to care for the girls beyond the most basic of needs and discipline. Needless to say, the mother doesn't come back and the aunt can't sustain as guardian, forcing the girls to move in with their grandparents.
The fact that the camera stays focused on Jin and Bin throughout the film shapes our sympathies instead of manufacturing them. When their aunt is talking we channel a reaction through Jin's face, and tugging at the heart-strings is just the beginning. Despite the events, there is something universal in this story of childhood. I think we all have just the briefest memories of moments of understanding from our youth that we recognize on Jin's face. It may be innocence lost, but in the context of the film, it is also hope regained through acceptance. By not asking the girls to act, per se, Kim gets some of the most natural performances from these young girls, allowing their ticks and individuality to shine.
Gaining more out of less is only half the story. The subtle brilliance of Treeless Mountain is in the details. The minutia is what draws you in to an atmosphere that feels genuine: the slow deterioration of the girls clothes and appearance, the pile of liquor bottles outside their aunt's home, and the slow change of scenery from urban to rural.
The influence of Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows is instantly recognizable, but I also found myself thinking about the young actors in Nagisa Oshima's Boy. This may be a random association on my part, but I found a similar richness in the characters of 'boy' and Jin. Kim obviously has an autobiographical bent, first taking on her adolescence in In Between Days and then receding into her childhood for Treeless Mountain. Kim herself was born in South Korea and moved to the US when she was 12. In a post-screening Q & A she re-emphasized as much, saying that she has only her own experiences to work with and she is unable to fabricate anything beyond that. But Treeless Mountain already has hints of moving outside of simple autobiography.
Treeless Mountain debuted at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival and played in Minneapolis as part of the Walker's Women With Vision. It will get a wider release later this Spring.