Still from So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Films.
Brenda Wineapple, author of the new Emily Dickinson biography White Heat, recently spoke on “nudging narrative,” the massive effort needed to create a “biological narrative” out of the messy stuff of life. So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain effortlessly does just that. Kim’s second feature film is a gentle sidelong glance at truth before it slides away. The camera lingers on little details—a cheek laid against a windowpane, a baby-blue princess costume drying next to a blue wall, and interstitial shots of clouds rushing to cover the sun, suggesting the characters’ emotional weather.
Shot in the director’s hometown of Hunghae, South Korea, Treeless Mountain was a hit at the Toronto Film Festival, MoMA’s New Directors/New Films series, and it won the Berlin international Film Festival’s Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (for “works of quality that touch the spiritual dimension of our existence”). The plot may be glancing, but there is a strong narrative drive: sisters Jin and Bin, ages six and four, are left by their troubled and distracted mother in the care of an older aunt, an ornery alcoholic. They are left to fend for themselves, and resort to catching and roasting grasshoppers to eat or sell to neighborhood kids. The cinematography is intimate and stays close to the girls, as if literally watching over them in the absence of their father, a “bastard” who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances, leaving their mother to seek him out.
Jin and Bin’s prized possession is a red plastic piggy bank; their mother has promised to return by the time they fill the piggy with change. The girls lug it from place to place, the burden growing heavier as it fills toward the inevitable moment when they will learn what they may have suspected all along: mom isn’t coming back.