Kim So-yong’s Treeless Mountain (2008)

Synopsis: An elementary school in Seoul, the present. Six-year-old Jin spends her penultimate day at elementary school learning about time and playing with friends. Later that evening, she is chastised by her mother for failing to take Bin, her four–year-old sister, off the neighbours’ hands when she was supposed to. The next day, Jin’s contentment is broken when she returns to find removal men emptying the apartment. Her mother bundles the girls onto a bus bound for Hunghae and on arrival deposits them with their Aunt. When Jin is taken to one side and told that her mother must leave to search for their missing father, she is given a small piggybank together with a promise that when it is filled with pocket-money their mom will return ...

Opening with a throwaway line that serves as a grim foretelling of events to come (an elementary school teacher tells her young charges to go home and “have your mother teach you how time works”), Treeless Mountain is a sharply observed drama about the lies we tell children and the things that children do to cover up and defend against loss. Essentially a two-hander between seven-year old Kim Hee-yeon (in the role of elder sister Jin) and the even littler Kim Song-hee (who was five at the time of shooting), the film begins with the girls’ mother deciding she must go in search of their estranged father. In one of the film’s many painful sequences, she leaves her daughters in the care of their aunt, telling Jin (to whom she has entrusted a bright pink piggybank for safekeeping), “Each time you obey your aunt, she’ll give you a coin. Put it in here. By the time it gets full I’ll be back.” The girls attribute to the insentient “Piggy” both a nickname and a helper identity, asking it for help and masterminding new moneymaking schemes to fill it up more quickly. Over the course of the film, Jin transforms from a pampered but bright young thing, topping her classes at elementary level and evidently acing all of her friends when it comes to playground card games, to a stoic and resourceful child, still buoyant and bright, but ultimately deceived by a falsehood. The film sadly tests the rules of the childrens’ reality, but Jin finds her feet on the slopes, taking responsibility for her sister’s wellbeing and perhaps too for both of their futures.

Sisters Bin (Kim Song-hee) and Jin (Kim Hee-yeon) play in Kim So-yong’s Treeless Mountain (2008)

Treeless Mountain is set predominantly in the director’s former hometown of Hunghae, a sizeable rural borough north of Pohang (roughly 170 miles from Seoul) where she spent a good deal of her infancy living on her grandparents’ rice farm. (Kim’s mother divorced and emigrated to the States, leaving the young Kim and her sister in the care of their grandparents — though she would later follow her mother to America when she was twelve). Surprisingly (and admirably so in the present standard-issue hi-def climate), the film was shot on Super-16, an unwieldy, noisy format at the best of times and one that does not make the demanding task of recording 40 hours of footage in cramped conditions any easier (or cost effective). The result photographically is, nonetheless, wonderful. Respectful as well as inclusive, D.P. Anne Misawa covers the girls’ lively interactions without sentimentality and in as much detail as circumstances permit: we watch them watching, listening, crying and singing (“me ddoo gi, me ddoo gi, me-me-me-me-me ddoo gi”), sleeping and eating, yawning and procrastinating, grappling with big door handles, fumbling with blocky crayons — everything is seen from the girls’ viewpoint. This approach comes into its own when the film relocates to wintry farmland deep in the Hunghae countryside; in one shot, the camera watches at a certain remove as Bin then Jin tentatively approach their new grandmother for food; in another, Bin taps a window relentlessly until Jin pops into frame to tap the other side (“Peep-peep-peep”). This closeness to the girls is underscored by the film’s soundtrack, which carries not a single note of music (though Asobi Seksu’s score over the end credits is sugary enough to be gorgeous). It looks instead to the natural sounds of the countryside, to the girls’ footfalls around the house, and most effectively of all to the sounds of their breathing: at rest and at play.

Importantly for a film focusing on character, the indie aesthetic is enriched by some fine supporting performances. Kim Mi-hyang is commanding as the potentially alienating Big Aunt, a blustering, disgruntled alcoholic whose modest self-made image took a severe knock when she sold off her failing business. Lee Soo-ah has less screen time in the role of Mrs Lee, the girls’ mother, but her tender performance hints at the gulf which exists between her maternal duty and her suppressed personal desire. Elsewhere, Kim’s non-professional actors have a naturalistic charm and confidence that reinforces her quasi-social-realist approach. She is aided most ably in this regard by Park Boon-tak, a Hunghae local and farm labourer who was cast just two days before the grandmother’s scenes were scheduled to be shot, and Kim Mi-jung, the mild-mannered neighbour (credited as “Pretty Lady”) whose real son the girls grow to like and play with.

Inevitably, the film’s main strength lies in the appealing screen presences of the leads. If Kim Hee-yeon sticks with film then the work she does here bodes well for the future. Her performance is an admixture of pain, fascination, glee and compassion, the distress in some of her scenes at times uncomfortably raw. When in one scene a new play-friend charitably hands Jin a sticker to play with she graciously declines it, quietly excuses herself, then takes her sister home; it’s a touching moment, one in which the girl becomes acutely aware that she is more fortunate than the boy, but also that she cannot yet share in the delight of a son indulged so lovingly by his mother. Remarkably, Hee-yeon manages to convey all of this in a simple look. It is also to Kim’s great credit that the transformation of Jin from an amusingly carefree if slightly tardy primary-school student into a sharp-eyed, kind-hearted young girl is kept modestly restrained, and yet a single production still of Jin in school uniform, emblazoned across the D.V.D. menu screen which the film returns us to promptly after the end credits, underscores the extent of this transformation. It’s easy to imagine a contemporary animation making a heroine of Jin in the final act, but here the director’s approach is subtly even-handed, calmly settling Jin into a new life without ever dispelling her aching loneliness. Accordingly, the look she exchanges with an excited Bin towards the end, as their grandmother prepares food at their side, is one of the most satisfying moments in Treeless Mountain — not for nothing does it come as some relief to us when she feels distracted enough to smile again. For her part Song-hee — in addition to producing some truly priceless expressions in her role as Bin (Misawa’s camera regularly finds her staring dimly at some offscreen player, a hint in her eye that she is indeed suffering some sort of fool here) — shows remarkable poise in many of her one-on-one interactions. A scene in which the young mite objects to the others’ maltreatment of some grasshoppers may involve no acting or even instruction, but such is her confidence in front of the lens that she’s a treat to watch. And unsurprisingly, the director lavishes her with attention.

Not suffering fools: Bin headscratching

Little entrepreneurs: Jin and Bin head off to catch grasshoppers

As for the central themes of absence, personal agency and responsibility, the film is harsh but honest. Kim reveals the nature of certain relationships only gradually and accepts that the girls’ problems cannot be easily resolved by the introduction of new owners. In one of the film’s many Hunghae-based street scenes, as a local boy loiters in a side-street text messaging, Jin asks permission to telephone her mum’s old number in Seoul. Checking it out instead for himself, the reply comes: “That number is disconnected.” In a world governed by adults it seems that even in this small task Jin is helpless — she is denied the dignity of learning the knowledge privately for herself, and must take a stranger at his word publicly in front of Bin; quietly she moves on. Kim achieves an extraordinary level of pathos with this approach. There’s no great moment of insurrection against Big Aunt, for instance, just the forceful pronouncement issued by the girls endlessly and behind closed doors that they are hungry.
Unlike Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai, 2004, Japan), an earlier portrait of abandoned siblings struggling for a life in Tokyo (to which this film has I think been unfairly compared), there’s no usefully sentimentalising against-all-odds trajectory here, no jeopardy plot to threaten the girls’ lives. Jin’s quiet realisation that she must stay put for the benefit of Bin is compelling enough. And though class mobility is undoubtedly an issue (one which tangles with our natural parenting instinct as viewers), the film is admirably non-partisan, neither idealising finally working-class family life or surreptitiously passing judgement on it. It isn’t an easy work, as many viewers who wish they could influence the on-screen events will undoubtedly find, but it is a real pleasure: sensitive and heart-rending, rich in pathos, and offering a potent glimpse of the ties that bind two resilient young girls together.

Disc: Soda Pictures’ U.K. release comes with a fine audio commentary from director Kim So-yong and husband and producer Bradley Rust Gray. Both shed light on some of the more obscure (salt punishment) or objectionable (grilling insects alive) customs that are culturally accepted practice in South Korea, but they also throw in some lighter stuff, noting for instance the terse attitude of some of the locals who witnessed the Big Aunt scenes shot in the market.

The extras include a cute-as-buttons chat with the two girls, as they reminisce with Kim about the shoot and (but of course!!) the grasshopper song. As Kim explains in the Q&A featurette (an after-show spot with an audience at the New York Film Forum), the girls were given very rudimentary instructions and guidelines prior to principal photography, and once the real business of shooting on a daily basis began the screenplay was treated with a substantial degree of flexibility. The Region 1 D.V.D. release, which contains all the above, goes one step further with a modest selection of deleted scenes and outtakes — a small contribution admittedly, but one which would have rounded out the contextual material nicely on our own highly recommendable Region 2 release.
19 July, 2011
This review was originally published by New Korean Cinema.


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