I have seen quite a few Korean movies since I decided to make it an area of focus in my Graduate studies, however, Treeless Mountain was one of those films that floated around in my queue, well before I made this transition nearly a year ago, specifically under my Netflix liking of low-budget, cerebral stories of everyday life...or some crazy combination of film tropes and genres that seems absurd, but, nonetheless, appropriately describes my tastes. When I read the description for the film, the plot which I will expand on shortly, made me assume that the work would be unbearably graphic and intensely uncomfortable. Yet, this is not from the same set of veins that so many controversial Korean films seem to set their roots within, it is very much an independent film about two young girls coming to grips with growing up entirely too quickly and losing all sense of their innocence in the process. Of course, this loss is expanded upon in very metaphorical turns, often taking moments of serenity and dabbling with comforts of viewers not in the grotesque, but in the tragically real. One could easily change the race of these children and the location and draw upon the same themes globally, particularly when set within a metropolitan discourse. Treeless Mountain has all the heavy handedness of a Truffaut oriented children's film's closing moments, I am thinking particularly of Small Change, but it could work to some degree for a few of his other earlier works. Not to discredit those marvelous works, but I find the beauty of Treeless Mountain to reside in its taking of a stance as its narrative being rough, tragic and sparse, without giving viewers the comfort of whimsy for the first hour and some odd change of the film. This film exists as a perfect syncrinization of a pitch perfect story, daring cinematography and perhaps some of the best child acting seen in decades. Treeless Mountain has introduced me to a new burgeoning segment of Korean cinema that I cannot wait to explore. While I certainly understand director So Yong Kim's move to making movies in Hollywood, it is a bit of a let down to realize that he will not return to subject matter of the same latent gravitas and subtlety.
Treeless Mountain begins with a cold opening of sorts, we are given the film credits overlapped as a young Korean girl consumes all things education within a classroom, the girl Jin (He-yeon Kim) appears to also enjoy playing Pogs, although this game causes her to be late in picking up her younger sister Bin (Song-hee Kim) an action that leads to her caretaker being incredibly upset. They wait anxiously for the return of their mother from work, only to witness her react to their excitement in a beleaguered state of indifference. It is revealed that the neighbor can no longer afford, or perhaps cares to, watch Jin and Bin, forcing the mother to unload them on their aunt, whom they "affectionately" refer to as Big Aunt (Mi-hyang Kim), a cantankerous older woman who constantly dismisses their questions and concerns. It is eventually revealed that Big Aunt suffers from an incredible troublesome drinking problem and only sees the two children as a deterrent from her boozing. Realizing that in order to meet up with their mom again the two must fill their piggy bank full of coins as promised, they take up selling grilled grasshoppers, eventually making more than enough to fill the plastic pig. However, despite their mother's promise the two wait patiently at the bus stop before realizing that she will not return. Even after making a friend with a local boy who suffers from an apparent mental disorder, the two are not able to escape that they must rely on their Big Aunt whose most recent drunk stupor has lead her to become so frustrated with the girls, that she unloads them onto their grandparents farm. While their grandfather is incredibly against the idea of them staying, the grandmother takes an instant liking to the two girls and is shown training them in the ways of farming, before the two walk along the country side singing a sweet song, completely forgetting the tragedy of being abandoned by their own mother.
Loss of innocence is certainly the central theme to Treeless Mountain, particularly in that Jin and Bin are forced to come to a realization that parents are not necessarily the pillars of perfectness that youth allows you to assume. I remember coming to this realization rather lately in my life at say nineteen or so and having considerable trouble consuming the notion, it is even more tragic to realize that this certainly occurs not only within this film, but to many people this age on a daily basis. Blame can be directed in a variety of places, one could claim the mother at fault for not properly controlling her life and the lives of those she birthed, one could attack the educational and political systems in the film for not taking note of the obvious home troubles. Hell, an argument could even be made as to why a misplaced valuing of capitalist endeavors are the root of the children's lost innocence, yet, however, one reads it, the fact is that Jin and Bin are made to realize the harshness of existence quite early and quite intensely. While it may seem like one of the lesser moments in the film, almost a throw away moment, when Jin initially impales a grasshopper with a stick, one can read that as the ultimate moment of lost innocence, particularly because it is such a inherently violent act, even if the justification is creating food for them at some points as well as a means for profits. In one reading it would be easy to see this scene as Jin and Bin displacing their own violent subjection upon something smaller than themselves, ultimately, as a means of financial gain, certainly something their mother could be considered guilty of doing, even if she had initially good intentions. In fact, it is not until they find their grandmothers love, and, more importantly, disconnect from capitalist desire that they are able to regain some youthful bliss, which results in them ambitiously providing their piggy bank to their grandmother to buy new shoes.
Key Scene: There are a few soberingly real moments throughout the film that cause viewers to question how "ignorant" Jin is to the world she engages with, one, in particular, occurs when she is receiving a sticker from the mentally challenged friend they have recently met.
This is a spectacular piece of cinema, easily one of my new favorites from South Korea. It is a gift to be able to see it on Watch Instantly, although I dream of an imminent Bluray upgrade.