Treeless Mountain, the apparently autobiographical second feature from director So Yong Kim, confirms the arrival of a distinctive talent among American independent filmmakers while simultaneously suggesting that its creator might benefit from branching out of her comfort zone in the future. Much like Kim’s debut work, In Between Days, this film quietly observes a young Korean girl as she attempts to grapple with the uncertainty and alienation of living in a world where she feels unwanted. Set in South Korea, this uncommonly intimate experience follows two sisters as they find themselves abandoned by their mother and placed in the care of their indifferent drunkard of an aunt. While In Between Days featured a teenage protagonist, the sisters who anchor this film are much younger, and therefore capable of a much smaller range of emotional understanding. It is this downward shift in scope that both enables Kim to present a more comprehensive worldview than in her previous film, and limits her from expanding her palette.
The older of the two girls that Treeless Mountain follows is just mature enough to begin to recognize how miserable her situation is. Kim skillfully manages to convey both her confusion and comprehension as she comes to terms with her sorry situation. From the opening scenes of the film, it is made clear how sensitive a child she is. We see the sting of rejection that she feels when her mother scolds her, yet also quickly come to understand how dependent she is upon her mother’s attention. It must be admitted that few films so perceptively capture the exaggerated outlook that marks early childhood (Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro certainly comes to mind). As Kim chronicles the downward slide of these two girls, she underlines their disappointments, their small victories, and their fleeting moments of levity. Since the plot of Treeless Mountain is even sparser than the one in In Between Days, tonal control is of utmost importance, and it must be admitted that Kim always manages to achieve the precise effect that she desires.
That might not be enough for some viewers, however. Determinedly minor, Treeless Mountain attempts to make simplicity a virtue, but constantly threatens to achieve only slightness. Kim is undoubtedly a skilled director, but she’s someone who seems more content to observe than state. Her placidity behind the camera turns her films into experiences that are somewhat inert, no matter how impeccably crafted they might be. Treeless Mountain finally delivers a touching ending, in a sequence that shows how a grandparents’ farm, which has served as a threat to the two young girls throughout the film, might become be the closest the girls have yet had to a home. For impatient viewers, though, the subtlety of this emotional payoff (it’s communicated mostly through a shift to warmer oranges in the film’s cinematography), might make it too minor to embrace.