Monday, July 20, 2009

"Treeless Mountain"

The writer-director So Yong Kim's second feature, Treeless Mountain is set in South Korea and stars pair of kindergarten-age children as six-year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and her younger sister, Bin (Song Hee). The movie begins with the girls' young mother (Soo Ah Lee) announcing that she's taking them to stay with "Big Aunt" (Mi Hyang Kim) while she goes out in search of their estranged father. Jin still sometimes wets the bed, and in a delicately observed scene early in the film, she has to wake her mother and let her know that it's happened again. Mom cleans her up and, before sending her to sleep on the unoccupied side of her own bed, whispers a reminder that no one will ever know what's happened: "It's just between us." Later, when the girls are with their aunt, the woman pulls them out of bed in the morning to find the sheets stained with urine and instinctively blames the smaller girl, who protests her innocence in a piping voice. Big Aunt doesn't believe her, which is bad enough for both girls--the one who winds up being punished for something she hasn't done, and the one who has to feel guilty for having been too afraid to take the rap. But what's really upsetting is the difference in Big Aunt's tone and approach from the girls' mother. It's not just that she's scolding and angry; she sounds as if she wouldn't mind sticking a sandwich board reading "I PEE THE BED" on the kid. Whoever's the guilty party, it is definitely not just between them.

Kim's highly acclaimed first feature, In Between Days, was about a teenage Korean immigrant (Jiseon Kim) in America, trying to adjust to her new surroundings while dealing with what may be her first serious (unrequited) crush. The movie was big on mood and atmosphere, at least partly (one assumes) to compensate for the fact that the nonprofessional lead actress was resolutely inexpressive, and I had a little trouble connecting with it. Treeless Mountain is vague at times, too, but on the whole it's a much fuller, richer picture, which may have something to do with Kim's development as a filmmaker but definitely has a lot to do with the child leads here, and the skillful way that the professional actresses playing their caregivers work with them. This non-professional actor thing that so many of your "neo-neorealist" directors are into these days definitely pays off better when the people they choose to point their cameras at can compensate for their lack of training with a naked, unself-conscious emotional openness, and very small children may be a better bet for that sort of thing than most adults (or--God knows--most teenagers). Hee Yeon Kim and Song Hee had never met before they were cast, but they play at being sisters very believably with no fuss, and their faces really take the camera. The beauty and resilience in those faces somehow make the movie more painful yet easier to take at the same time.

The director's work with them is all the more remarkable for the fact that the movie is reportedly based on her own childhood feelings about being parked with her grandparents on a rice farm while her newly divorced mother went to America to try to start a new life for her family. It must have taken a superhuman balancing act of empathy and directorial control for her to make this movie, which is essentially seen through the girls' eyes, leaving them the freedom to express their own feelings about being in a situation drawn from her own experiece. vorced when she was young; her mother went ahead of her children to the United States, and Ms. Kim lived for a spell with her grandparents on a rice farm. The movie tells the story of two sisters, 6 — year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and 4-year-old Bin (Song Hee Kim), who develop their own ways to cope as they are shuttled from one family member to another. “Writing it was the most difficult part,” Kim said in a recent interview with The New York Times. “I couldn’t proceed until Bin and Jin were their own individuals. If I saw too much of myself, it wasn’t ready.”

The movie doesn't demonize the adults, and it keeps its perspective: it's hard to say that anything the girls are put through constitutes real abuse or abandonment, and the adults always have their reasons. But it returns you to that frame of mind small children have that adults who've grown out of it are all too eager to forget about, when being so small and vulnerable makes you feel as if your whole world could crumble in a second and no one would notice, when any hint of rejection or even indifference can feel as scary and upsetting as an unexpected blow to the face. The worst blows can be the ones that some adult has unthinkingly come up with on the spur of the moment to make the world seem more magical, and for which they may even have congratulated themselves. About to leave, the mother tells her daughters that if they obey Big Aunt "she'll give you a coin" to put inside their big, smiling, pink piggy bank, and that by the time the bank is full, she'll return for them. But then Bin buys a snack and gets change, and Jin does the math: breaking up a big coin gets you many more small coins. So the girls collect all their big coins and go running to the shops to load up on change, which they thin stuff into piggy, and voila, it's all full. Then they go down to the bus stop, and wait.

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