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Treeless Mountain

The best thing about this second feature by Korean-American filmmaker So Yong Kim is less what it does as what it doesn’t do: It takes a potentially bathetic situation but avoids playing it for sentimentality. It follows what appears to be a year in the lives of two young girls living in Seoul. Jin (Hee-yeon Kim) is six years old and enjoys being in school, even if she already has been shouldered with the responsibility of getting her younger sister Bin (Song-hee Kim) home from day care. Their mother (Soo Ah Lee) is unable to cope, and so she sets off to find the girls’ long-absent father, leaving them in the hands of his sister (Mi Hyang Kim).

Big Aunt, as they call her, is single, past a certain age, drinks more than a bit and seems to have no steady source of income. Failing to enroll them in school, she mostly lets the girls on their own, and they spend their time trying to fill their piggy bank with coins because they believe that when they have done so their mother will return.

Little actually happens, and the passage of time is uncertain, marked mostly in the subtle but growing awareness in Jin that their mother may never return. Both children are affecting, though this is probably less to their credit—can children of this age truly be said to “act” in the adult sense of the word?—than it is to the director’s ability to follow, frame and capture their reactions. So Yong Kim, whose new film For Ellen received strong notices at the recent Sundance Film Festival, ahs said that the film is based on the emotional circumstances of her own youth, though in her case it was being left alone after her family moved from Korea to Brooklyn. Treeless Mountain may not be as memorable as other classic films about troubled children—Spirit of the Beehive, Ponette, the Japanese drama Nobody Knows—but it deserves to be mentioned alongside those, which is praise enough. It will be screened on Thursday March 8 at the Market Arcade as part of the International Women’s Film Festival.

Watch the trailer for Treeless Mountain

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