So Yong Kim’s cinema can break your heart. Not by invoking the usual tearjerking music swells and dramatic crescendos, but by constructing narratives authentically attuned to the behavioral and emotional rhythms of particular age groups, from childhood to teenage years. In the course of only two films — the impeccable adolescent tale In Between Days being the first — Kim has demonstrated a mastery of the medium similar to Ramin Bahrani; both directors craft character stories and share realist aesthetic tendencies, evincing an almost anthropological attention to detail whilst weaving immigrant experiences into the fabric of a shared American narrative. Treeless Mountain again sees Korean-American director Kim — drawing upon memories of growing up in Pusan — expertly turning her gaze upon a female protagonist, this time undergoing an experience more harrowing than high school.
Many of the particulars integral to the success of In Between Days are on full display in Treeless Mountain, not least a naturalistic nonactor in the lead role. Played by Hee Yeon Kim, six-year-old Jin is first introduced to us at her school desk attentively noting her teacher’s matter-of-fact instruction, “When you get home, take a clock out for practice and have your mother teach you how time works.” We later see her finish the homework on her own after picking up her younger sister, Bin (the delightful Song Hee Kim), from a neighbor’s house. Kim thus economically establishes the situation, further expanded upon when Jin and Bin’s mom (Soo Ah Lee) arrives home, single-parent exhaustion apparent immediately. Jin, possessing a sensitivity and outer awareness unusual for her age — no doubt attributable in part to her father’s abandonment — inquires about a secretive exchange she witnesses between her mother and landlady. She’s heard this song before, and exudes apprehensive understanding when she comes home the next day to find her mother packing up the apartment. Click here to read all of Kristi Mitsuda’s review of Treeless Mountain.