For lovers of both the whimsical free form and bittersweet intimate films of Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Tortoro and Grave of the Fireflies for instance), there will be a lot to love in So Yong Kim’s semi-autobiographical childhood film Treeless Mountain. It makes a finely articulated plea for the rejuvenating aspects of simple living over urban malaise; but more importantly, it is a showcase for the fragile dignity of children.
The film opens with bright young girl, Bin, who is about 6 years old. She excels in her studies, cleans up against her friends playing Pogs in the schoolyard, and picks up her younger sister, Jin, from the babysitter on the way home. Yet her mom has some serious financial and marital problems (hubby is gone, and probably beat her on the way out there door). It has come to the point where she resents her children for simply being a burden. An eviction from their soulless tenement building seals the deal and the two young girls are sent across town (an even poorer neighborhood) to live with their absentee fathers’ older sister until mom can patch up her affairs. Dubbed Big Auntie, perhaps not for her size, but rather her gargantuan drinking habit, the new ‘caregiver’ is more interested in buying sujo than feeding her charges. Their mom has given the girls a piggy bank with the promise that if they are good, Auntie will give them coins, when the little plastic bank is full, mom will return. Anyone familiar with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (a film this one will inevitably be compared to, however in tone and intent is quite different) has a good sense of picking up the probability of this coming to fruition by simply watching how mom boards the bus out of town, unawares of her own children’s goodbye calls. The girls discover and explore the sounding shanty town where Big Auntie lives, make a few friends, stack a lot of soju bottles in the back yard, and learn how to grill and eat grasshoppers (on a stick) when it becomes obvious that Big Auntie isn’t going to feed them or give them coins.
Shot in extreme close-up to emphasize the perspective (or lack thereof) of the young girls, the film is very slow moving in its story telling. The director eschews any musical soundtrack whatsoever to emphasize the quiet desperation of the adults and to emphasize the feeling of ‘unwanted’ that the two girls experience. Yet they make due in the manner of having one of those endless summers. Yet the film is quite optimistic (in that magical realist way) that children have the capacity for bottomless love simply from not knowing any better. As child perspective stories go, things are far more in the territory of Jim Sheridan’s wistfully melancholic In America (echoed with the Cinderella dress-up costume that Jin wears, even as it gets more tattered along the films trajectory) than Terry Gilliam’s vile Tideland. When the children are offloaded (again) onto their grandparents farm, there is a sense that they have both grown up a fair bit, but also are allowed (despite given a harvesting workload) to be children again. Treeless Mountain flirts with falling into the trap of presenting the children (both child actors are note perfect) precocious or sappy, but never does. It simply observes without judging or forcing a reaction. If Terrence Malick were to ever make a film about children, it might look a little like this.
There is some subtle subtext on the encroachment of urbanization and the ills that come along (note the films title even), but mainly it is a tale of the growth and rhythms of the human spirit. When parents and their children have watched My Neighbor Tortoro for the hundredth time, this Korean-American co-production may be the obvious next step.