TREELESS MOUNTAIN (2009)
An understated yet powerful child’s-eye view of abandonment when two young girls are left with an aunt as their mother hunts their absent father
For much of Treeless Mountain, we zoom in close on the faces of the two young girls who are struggling to battle on without their mother. The emphasis is clear, to absorb the emotional baggage on their faces. To ensure every gloomy look and pained expression is clear to see.
Such is the power of this method, much of the film elsewhere is understated and pared back. Allowing matters to gentle develop as we unpack issues of desertion and neglect.
It also contributes to the growing collection of superb child performances in Korean cinema, with two breathtakingly brilliant performances from the young performers the story centres around.
Jin (Kim Hee-yeon) is a bright young girl living with her mother and younger sister, Bin (Kim Song-hee). Despite her academic smarts, Jin is consumed by family duties and providing care for her sister.
One day, the family moves in with “Big Aunt”, their paternal aunt, while their mother disappears to search for the girls’ birth father. Their mother gifts them an empty piggy bank and insists that each time they follow their aunt’s directions, they will get a coin. By the time the piggy bank is full, their mother will return.
Taking this literally, the girl catch, grill and sell grasshoppers for money, attempting to fill the piggy bank in a rapid fashion. However, their aunt is more interested in alcohol than her newly found responsibility for the girls.
In one scene, the aunt takes a seat in a restaurant with the girls, ordering soju and food for herself but insisting it would be a waste of money to feed children who can eat home later. As the children sit in hunger, the restaurant owner looks on in horror.
The absence of their mother takes its toll on the girls. The daily confusion and yearning for their mother grows as the girls attempt to find their own way in life, sometimes unable to get care from an aunt who has passed out from the booze.
Treeless Mountain is a stripped back offering, providing less dialogue and a slowburn, subtle development of concepts. It might be a quiet film in some cinematic senses, but it is a bold and forthright work in terms of the issues it tackles.
It is also lusciously shot, combining those close shots of the girls’ faces with view of both urban and rural Korea as the pair are shifted between locations.
Regardless of the importance of their mother’s mission – finding their father – this is not how children see their world. There is an immediacy to the world of children. For them, they have simply been abandoned by their mother and are not receiving the same care from their aunt.
Powerful and unobtrusive, a patient view of the importance of parental love and the pain of its absence.