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.