Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Treeless Mountain" (2009)

Director So Yong Kim's "Treeless Mountain" is the story of two young Korean girls, Jin and Bin, ages 5 and 6, who are utterly on their own. Sure they have their mom, but she can't support them. She hands them off to Big Aunt who views the girls as annoying and a hassle. They must fend for themselves to the point of even finding food. Poking grasshoppers with a stick, cooking them over an open flame and selling them to neighbor children for coins becomes a common day activity. These coins get put into a piggy bank, one that will bring their mom back home once it's filled up. At least that's what Big Aunt tells them.

The magic of So Yong Kim's film is the way she elicits such deep and moving performances from these two children who had no relation to each other or the director during production. Their interactions with each other and the adults and world around them feel entirely organic. The film is meant to be viewed strictly from a child's perspective, and this effect is expertly rendered. Many of the camera shots are from the height of Jin and Bin with the waists of adults passing in and out of the frame. Of these adults is Big Aunt, an uncaring alcoholic whose patience for the young girls becomes less and less. Jin and Bin, meanwhile, stand atop a hill of rubble where they've planted a dead branch and watch for their mother to arrive on the bus.

There are frequent close-up shots of the children's faces, and even without saying a word lingering on their expressions reveal their inner thoughts. It's a truly fascinating way to represent children, one that is unsentimental, honest, daring and sometimes even difficult to bear considering the circumstances under which Jin and Bin are placed. It allows for a rich exploration of abandonment and childhood.

Intermingling among the close-ups are long takes of the landscape and the changing sky which work to show the passing time of these children's experience. It's uncertain how much time elapses through the running time of the film, which makes us unsure of how long these kids have been left afloat, but it makes sense because the children themselves don't even know. It's ironic, too, considering the fact that the last thing Jin was learning in school before getting ripped away was how to tell time.

While "Treeless Mountain" is rooted in sadness, the tenderness comes from the two children having so much hope even amidst their despair.

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