Treeless Mountain

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Treeless Mountain

Release Date: April 22 (limited)

Director/Writer: So Yong Kim

Cinematographer: Anne Misawa

Starring: Hee-yeon Kim, Mi-hyang Kim, Song-hee Kim, Soo-ah Lee

Studio/Run Time: Oscilloscope Pictures, 89 mins.

Two children alone in South Korea

The heart of cinema is montage. A film shows us one thing, then another, and our brains take over from there. Talking with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock described one of his films like this: “You have an immobilized man looking out. That’s one part of the film. The second part shows what he sees and the third part shows how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea.” From these basic building blocks a filmmaker can take an otherwise neutral facial expression and imbue it with meaning by adding a little context, producing an effect for the audience that feels curiously like mind reading.

Filmmaker So Yong Kim successfully exploits this unusual feature of cinema in her second film, Treeless Mountain, the story of two under-supervised little girls in South Korea. By cutting from the essentially inert performances of child actors to their increasingly dire circumstances and back again, Kim seems to convey their quiet fears of being left alone. Without the means to care for the girls, aged seven and five, their mother sends them to live with a distant relative, and most of the film is a journey to find and then settle with their aunt. Throughout that journey, little Jin and Song-hee are on their own.

I’ve talked to friends who bristle at yet another movie about children in peril, a sure-fire topic for filmmakers who are determined to provoke shallow sympathies from the audience. But I’m not sure these girls are ever truly in peril, and it speaks to Kim’s abilities that her close-up view of their small world can conjure a sense of danger. While the girls live in the big city of Pusan, the film shows their environment through a kind of tube, never looking very far beyond their field of vision. Outside that radius lies the fearsome unknown.

Kim is a Korean director who now lives in Brooklyn, and while she says Treeless Mountain is based loosely on her own memories of growing up in Pusan, I wonder if it draws as much on the feelings of an immigrant in a strange country: the separation from culture, the fear of the unknown, and the incessant din of the massive world that encloses your tiny self. She conveyed similar feelings in her first film, In Between Days, which was about a Korean living in Toronto, and in Treeless Mountain she again draws on a deep understanding of how movies work but also taps into her own experiences. That’s a potent combination, and I’m looking forward to where she takes us next.

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