Thursday, January 14, 2010

Review - Treeless Mountain

There's something magical about the simple childhood tale Treeless Mountain. So Young Kim's second feature is the story of two children who have to adapt to a new environment and a new way of life when their mother leaves them to search for their father, and the director has done an incredible job of ensuring her two young leads feel completely comfortable in front of the camera. Six year-old Jin (Hee-yeon Kim) and her younger sister Bin (Song-hee Kim) both seem unaware of the film that is being made around them, reacting to every situation with such authenticity that it doesn't seem fair to deem their contributions as 'acting'. Kim's film takes a naturalistic approach to telling their tale, with her unobtrusive camera staying close to the children's faces and letting them carry the drama at their own pace. Scenes frequently pass by without any major incidents occurring, but Treeless Mountain makes us see the world from the children's perspective, and as such, even the smallest developments can feel momentous.

When the children are first uprooted, they are sent to live with their 'Big Aunt' (Mi-hyang Kim). She is not exactly a cruel guardian, but she treats them as something of a nuisance and shows them little affection, often leaving them to take care of themselves for long stretches while she drinks. They manage to make friends with a local boy and learn to make some money by catching, cooking and selling locusts, with the proceeds going straight into the piggy bank their mother gave the girls before she left. She promised them that they would receive pocket money for good behaviour, and that she would return when the bank is full, and the sisters cling to this hope throughout, frequently checking the bank to see how close they are to a long-awaited reunion. There's a wonderful moment when they realise that their big coins can be exchanged for a larger amount of smaller coins, which will fill the bank up more quickly, but following this breakthrough, there can be few more poignant sights than the girls sitting at the bus stop, clutching their full piggy, and forlornly waiting for their mother's return.

Scenes such as this are all the more touching because Kim avoids sentimentality. Her patient, unobtrusive style never forces the issue, allowing us to share Jin and Bin's experiences and gradually become absorbed in their story. She has an eye for small details – Bin's favourite blue dress, or the girls' fascination at the sights of the fish market – and the sibling relationship the film depicts is utterly convincing. Treeless Mountain is a tribute to the unexpected resilience and determination of children, with the sisters eventually accepting their fate, and learning to come to terms with their new life. The final scenes are a perfect conclusion to this lovely film, with Jin and Bin finding happiness in their new surroundings, and discovering a use for the money they have been so dutifully collecting – a moment that is a quiet but deeply touching epiphany.