Like "Wendy and Lucy," "Treeless Mountain" is one of those artfully smallscale movies in which nothing happens and everything happens. It's about two young girls, 7-year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and her younger sister Bin. (Song Hee Kim), who are left by their distraught mother (Soo Ah Lee) in the care of their aunt (Mi Hyang Kim) while she attempts to reconcile with her errant husband. The mother gives the girls a piggy bank and tells them that for each good deed they perform for Big Aunt, as she is called, a coin will be deposited. When the bank is filled, she promises to return.
The writer-director So Yong Kim was born in South Korea and immigrated to America when she was 12. Parts of this film, her second, are somewhat autobiographical. In any case, it has an intensely personal feel. Kim films the two children very close in, and although at times this approach is claustrophobia-inducing, her instincts are mostly right. The girls, who have never acted before, have marvelous faces and an ineffable ease in front of the camera. These are two of the best child performances I have ever seen (credit for which, especially given their ages, must largely go to Kim).
Kim captures the frights and resilience of childhood. When the girls forage in the fields for grasshoppers to skewer and sell as tidbits to passersby, the absurdity of their expedition is matched by a hard reality – they think that only a filled piggy bank will bring back their mother. When it's finally filled they wait, bereft, for their mother at a nearby bus stop, because this is where they last saw her. This brief moment ranks with the most piercing sequences from "Forbidden Games" (1952) and "Shoeshine," (1947) two masterpieces about the loss of childhood innocence.
Jin and Bin don't really lose their innocence, though. They are too bewildered by the corruptions of the adult world to understand what is going on. Their aunt is an alcoholic and would rather not have the burden of caring for these two babes in the woods. Still, she is not villainous – just somewhat indifferent. Kim has such an all-encompassing view of humanity that no one in this film, not even the bit players, comes across as anything but fully dimensional.
When, in its closing section, "Treeless Mountain" moves from the city to the farmlands where the girls' grandparents reside, it's as if the film has taken a deep breath. Kim doesn't sentimentalize this transition – she doesn't sentimentalize anything – but we feel, along with the girls, that some sort of accord with nature itself has been reached. Their marvelous old grandma (Boon Tak Park), with her indulgences and her folk remedies, is an embodiment of all that has been missing in their lives. In the end, this melancholy, inspiriting movie achieves a breathtaking emotional harmoniousness. Grade: A