Above: Kim Hee-yeon (left) and Kim Song-hee, the two sisters of Treeless Mountain.
Treeless Mountain (Kim So Yong, USA/South Korea) sets forth confidently with a incredible lead performance by young actress Kim Hee-yeon and an actor-based aesthetic of long-lens and short focus covering so tightly each crucial nuance of the actors that the visuals on the sidelines hint at abstract impressionism. The story and drama is quite similar to Kore-eda Hirokazu's Nobody Knows of a few years ago, with a mistreated and essentially forgotten group of children—in this case Hee-yeon and her younger sister played by Kim Song-hee—as they put up with the strain of everyday life and routine after their mother leaves them in the care of their aunt to go try and patch things up with their father. But there is something else too; although the girls obviously hope mightily to see their mother again (she tells them their aunt will give them a coin every time they do as she says, and as soon as their piggybank is full she’ll return home), there is a beautiful, intangible layer of hope and desire in the eldest sister, one that her young, maturing mind isn’t quite strong enough to grasp or define beyond an intangible yearning.
The triumph here is that, where Kore-eda's film played the same note, the same story again and again for its long run-time, Kim So Yong's second film (her follow-up to her debut, In Between Days) finds both freshness and solace in literally keeping the focus tight on the children. It is structured by ellipses between day-to-day events—the ingenuity of barbecuing and selling grasshoppers to neighborhood children so that the sisters can fill their being a highlight—and kept strong by the two girl actresses. They evince both a worn-down kind of non-professional approach, doing things with the plodding weariness of melancholy acquiescence found in unhappy children, as well as—Hee-yeon Kim especially—bringing an exceedingly sophisticated and adult awareness to their looks, gestures, and interiority. This is where Kim’s film pushes itself: it is dedicated not just to the behavioral and sentimental documentation of the sister’s sad situation, but also finds something—a consciousness—in the characters that exceeds their limited surroundings, an emotion that is as strong as it is abstract and lurking at the edges of the frame. Treeless Mountains visuals function the exact same way, starting with observation but in their dedication to the actors and their characters, finding in the tight focus flat, dynamic, sketchy swathes of color that the lower-class neighborhoods take the form of before the film’s camera and cutting. They layer the mood set by the performances: of a sadness but a stalwart attitude, and one slowly, gradually reaching towards a more tangible happiness some other place, some other time.