Treeless Mountain -- Film Review

BOTTOM LINE: Slow but richly observed story of childhood emotions.

Pusan International Film Festival
Korean Cinema Today-Vision

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"Treeless Mountain," the latest from writer-director Kim So-yong ("In Between Days"), is a simultaneously simple and complex film that straddles the line between coming-of-age drama and family tragedy. Without wallowing in sentimentality or judging any of her characters, Kim has drawn a mature portrait of an elementary school girl old before her time and a loss of childhood that rings true on every level.

This is the kind of independent feature that will be a success on the broad-spectrum festival circuit as well as niche programs focused on Asian and women filmmakers. "Mountain" deserves a wider audience, but it's chances at that are remote, even at home in Korea, where the subject needs to be addressed more frequently.

Mrs. Lee (Lee Soo-ah), a single mother unable to care for her daughters, Jin (Kim Hee-yeon) and Bin (Kim Song-hee), abruptly packs them off to their aunt (Kim Mi-hiyang) while she goes in search of their missing father. When Big Aunt isn't using the younger Bin in moneymaking schemes, she's drunk. The girls wait patiently for their mother to return but soon are shipped off to their elderly grandparents in the country.

"Mountain" isn't perfect -- even at a compact 89 minutes there are sequences that could be trimmed -- but it is a Korean cinematic voice not often heard with such clarity. Kim has made an extremely female film, where each character is recognizable on a level that women will connect with, though not to anyone else's exclusion.

The wayward Lee isn't an easy target for scorn, and even the negligent Big Aunt is more pitiful than hateful. Forced to bear the burden of responsibility at 6 years old, Jin understands the situation better than Bin and bristles at not being able to remedy it.

Strong as all Kim's characters might be, it's Jin and Bin that stand out -- truth be told, it's Jin's film -- because of the incredible performances Kim draws from the young nonprofessionals. Kim Hee-yeon manages to capture the frustration, fear, anger and despair in a pitch-perfect portrayal that belies her inexperience. You can see her desire to be a kid like every other warring with her sense of duty to her heroine-worshipping sister. Her slow emergence into the normalcy her grandmother provides is heartbreaking and hopeful, and concludes the film on high note.

Cast: Kim Hee-yeon, Kim Song-hee, Lee Soo-ah, Kim Mi-hiyang.
Director-screenwriter: Kim So-yong.
Producers: Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Ben Howe, Bradley Rust Gray.
Executive producers: Ian McGloin, Jamie Mai, Charlie Ledley.
Director of photography: Anne Misawa.
Production designer: Kim Se-hee.
Music: Asobi Seksu.
Editors: Kim So-yong, Bradley Rust Gray.
Sales agent: Memento Films International
No rating, 89 minutes.
production: Parts and Labor, Soandbrad.