A Mountain Where Less is More
Treeless Mountain, Dir. So Yo Kim, On DVD Sept. 15th
An early scene in Treeless Mountain, the austere and elegant second feature by Korean-born director So Yong Kim, depicts six-year-old Jin nervously waiting at the dinner table after her worried mother answers a knock at the door. Silence looms; one does not need to know the content of the exterior conversation to know that Jin’s home situation is worsening. A tight shot holds on Jin’s vacant face, and in turn, Jin functions in the scene not so much as a unique character but as a vessel for nearly any childhood anxiety a viewer might recall. Such quiet emptiness typifies Treeless Mountain, a fable-like tale that reflects upon the vulnerability of childhood but rarely imposes much in the way of concrete character development.
In the Neo-Realist tradition, Jin and her sister Bin fight to survive bleak situations outside of their control. Shot on location utilizing non-actors, Treeless Mountain aligns itself with contemporary films like Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Lance Hammer’s Ballast—films that New York Times writer A.O. Scott identified as the “Neo-Neo-Realist” movement in American independent film. New Yorker critic Richard Brody wrote an immediate rebuke to Mr. Scott’s praising of these films, calling them: “granola cinema, abstemious films… that cut off a wide range of aesthetic possibilities and experiences on ostensible grounds of virtue.” The intensity of the debate that followed suggests that whether a viewer identifies these films as a cinema movement or simply a trend of boring and preachy non-stories, few are without strong opinion.
Ms. Yong Kim’s striking first feature, In Between Days (2006), reveals an unmistakably Neo-Realist lineage. An episodic portrait of an emotionally isolated Korean teenager living in Canada, the film depicts a protagonist so disoriented and marginalized by the socioeconomic climate around her that she disconnects from her most basic personal feelings. In Treeless Mountain, Ms. Yong Kim does not belabor the cultural context surrounding Jin and Bin. Children are inherently powerless after all, and everyone had a childhood; one does not need to be an academic or an immigrant to sympathize. Examining childhood instead of ethnic identity allows Ms. Yong Kim to continue her exploration of isolation and disenfranchisement, but with an accessibility and timelessness that offers Treeless Mountain to a wider audience.
The formal use of realism in Treeless Mountain lies in its sparse, down-to-earth script and the commendably authentic performances from its young stars. The film’s mechanics, however, reveal a more controlled and theatrical mise-en-scène. In Between Days (shot exclusively with a handheld camera) evokes the run-and-gun immediacy of a documentary. In the more formal “Treeless Mountain,” Anne Misawa’s exquisite 16mm photography remains locked on a tripod. The camera stays consistently close and on level with the young girls, pulling the audience into their world and limiting the viewer to their vantage. The sound design emphasizes silence (there is no score) and exaggerates the curious sounds to which the girls are drawn: bursts of juice from an orange their grandmother eats, the adhesive of a sticker pulling off and on Jin’s tiny finger-tips.
Borrowing heavily from Yasujiro Ozu, Treeless Mountain utilizes landscape transition shots tucked between every sequence. A slow, meditative cadence structures the narrative in a manner reminiscent of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy—a film in which nature proves to be a healing and maternal force. Ultimately dumped at their grandparent’s rural farm, Jin and Bin spend time with their kind grandmother, and as they engage in farm work, they finally experience hope. This hope, it seems, arrives not from the grandmother herself as much as from the agricultural tradition she embodies. As the days go by, the young girls’ misfortunes recedes in time as a new season of promise emerges. Transition shots of red sunsets announce a renewal of darkness and the end of the film.
Ms. Kim artfully renders moments of childhood anguish with intimate tenderness. Though graceful and visually stunning, the film’s resolution provides a glaring lack of catharsis for Bin and Jin. Indeed, many “Neo-Neo-Realist” films share this tendency to understate (or perhaps under-develop) narrative resolution. …Does this suggest that the third act in Aristotelian storytelling might not reflect the real world? Perhaps. However, it might also be a result of lazy writing.
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