The Kids Are Alright

Song Hee Kim, Treeless Mountain, 2008, color film in Super 16, 89 minutes. Production stills. Left: Jin (Hee Yeon Kim). Right: From front to back: Bin (Song Hee Kim), Jin (Hee Yeon Kim), and Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim). Photos: Bradley Rust Gray/Oscilloscope Laboratories.

DIRECTED WITH SURPASSING TENDERNESS, SKILL, AND INGENUITY, So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain (2008) draws on the director’s own memories of her Korean childhood. Two sisters, six-year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and four-year-old Bin (Song Hee Kim) make the classic film journey from city to country when their mother, abandoned by the children’s father, can no longer pay the rent on their Seoul apartment. Trying to make the best of a desperate situation, the mother leaves the little girls with her sister-in-law, who lives in a small town. She promises to return when Jin and Bin have filled their red plastic piggy bank, never imagining that they would interpret her words as literally as a post-Duchamp Conceptualist. Left to their own devices by their alcoholic “auntie,” the girls set up their version of a lemonade stand. Their specialty: fresh-roasted grasshoppers. Having filled the piggy bank with the proceeds, they wait at the bus stop day after day for their mother to reappear. Instead, she sends a letter instructing her sister-in-law to take Jin and Bin to their grandparents, poor peasants who live entirely off the land in a remote rural area. But unlike the rough sister-in-law, the grandmother is as gentle as their mother, and the sisters bond with her, especially since working in the garden results in having something good to eat every day.

What makes this slight narrative compelling is that it is told entirely from the children’s point of view, synced to their perceptions and to the mercurial emotions that color them. The organizing consciousness is that of Jin, who was an A student in primary school and has been charged by her mother with taking care of her younger sibling. This responsibility, though far too weighty, keeps her from giving in to despair. It is, in a sense, her existential project, and through it the outlines of her adult future emerge. As the sisters chatter in their soft voices, bend their heads together over their magic piggy bank, and walk or run hand in hand through a world of grown-ups that barely notices them, another film comes to mind—Jean-Pierre Gorin’s documentary Poto and Cabengo (1980), about fragile twin sisters with similarly bowl-shaped hairstyles who speak to each other in what their family and the tabloid media believe is a “secret” language.

As in her equally rigorous and empathetic debut feature, In Between Days (2007), also focused on a girl—this one a teenager—who has been displaced and abandoned by a parent, Kim eschews melodrama and sentimentality. And unlike other films that manipulate the audiences by suggesting that sooner or later in the narrative a child will die—David Gordon Green’s overvalued George Washington (2000) is a prime example—Treeless Mountain keeps us in the present moment, with a camera that stays tight on the sad but determined faces of Jin and Bin as they struggle to cope with and make sense of the indifference of adults and the harshness of living in poverty. Since the thought of death never enters the girls’ heads, it doesn’t occur to us, either. There are heartbreaking moments, as when Jin asks to borrow a stranger’s cell phone to call her mother, only to discover that the number has been disconnected. But there are also moments when we marvel at their pleasure in the taste of a sweet bun or in the discovery of a bug under a leaf.

If Treeless Mountain is a more immediately appealing film than In Between Days, it’s in part because Jin and Bin have not yet learned to cover their yearning with the diffident mask that the heroine of the earlier film presents to the world. And unlike the raw visual style of In Between Days, Treeless Mountain, shot on Super 16 by Anne Misawa, has a delicate pastel beauty that underscores the girls’ physical and emotional fragility. While close-ups dominate the handheld camera strategy, they are punctuated by precisely composed ultralong shots, in which the tiny figures of the sisters seem painfully isolated within the forbidding landscape. (Bin is always dressed in a bedraggled baby-blue fur-collared princess gown and rose-colored jacket, simply because no one has the money to buy her anything more appropriate.) But what’s most amazing about the film are Jin and Bin. At age four, Song Hee Kim is too young to do anything that could be considered acting. Her performance is the result of her sweet face and sturdy stance and a lot of extremely creative editing. (We think we see more of her than we actually do.) Hee Yeon Kim, who, as Jin, carries the entire film on her thin shoulders, displays, however, a talent for acting far beyond her years. The collaboration between her and the director is a thing of wonder.

Treeless Mountain runs April 22–May 5 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.