Film Review: Treeless Mountain

A glowing reminiscence of a difficult childhood, further illuminated by lovely performances, directorial nuance and gorgeous visuals.

So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain is the affecting tale of six-year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim), who, with her even younger sister, Bin (Song Hee Kim), struggles to survive in and understand a world in which adults have a certain control over her destiny that often seems arbitrary, if not downright cruel. The girls’ mother (Soo Ah Lee) has left them in the care of their “Big Aunt” (Mi Hyang Kim) while she goes off in search of their estranged father. “Big Aunt” is anything but a naturally maternal type and her gruff ways aren’t much comfort to the children in this precarious time. Eventually, even she finds their upkeep too much for her and sends them off to their grandparents in the country, which, far from being the dire fate which was always used as a threat when they misbehaved, turns out to be the best place for them of all.

Kim keeps her camera at a low angle throughout, the better to capture a child’s minutely detailed world, and she is rewarded by the performances of her young actresses. Flower-faced Hee Yeon Kim is a natural film subject, her face and body possessing an emotional transparency ideal for the medium, and Song Hee Kim, while a bit plainer, looks-wise, makes the perfect stoic little foil for her often recalcitrant older sister, dressed in an absurd fur-trimmed princess frock. Mi Hyang Kim admirably does not try to soften her character—Korean women can often be tough indeed, as this writer knows from personal family experience. But such is the director’s sense of nuance that, in the leave-taking scene, even this selfish, hard-as-nails bitch engenders some affection from the charges she has so often mistreated, children being the supremely adaptable emotional creatures they are and so often need to be.

Anne Misawa’s cinematography is often gorgeous, apprehending the beauty to be found in unlikely images like a mountain of dirt surmounted by a dead branch the sisters have “planted,” or grasshoppers impaled on sticks and then roasted over an open fire to sell as snacks—one way in which the children amass the piggy-bank money they believe will bring their mother back to them. Throughout, the director’s touch is subtle yet suffused with empathy, and the ending, with the girls finding real succor at last with their grandmother as she makes man doo (dumplings), the ultimate comfort food, has something of the soul-satisfying relief of the finale of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, when those orphans reached the promised land of Lillian Gish and a proper home at last.