Treeless Mountain, So Yong Kim’s beautifully crafted story of two young sisters looking for an adult to provide them with the love and care they deserve, is one of the most assured and touching American independent films of the year. Kim, best known for In Between Days, her debut feature, joins a growing list of American-based filmmakers (Chris Smith, Lee Isaac Chung, etc.) who have begun leaving the comforts of domestic shores behind to explore the drama and stories found in other cultures. So far, none of them have let me down; Treeless Mountain is a gorgeous movie (with vibrant cinematography by Anne Misawa) that is teeming with compassion as it tells its deceptively simple story.
Jin, a carefree elementary school student, is the older sister of Bin, a precocious toddler who follows her sister’s every cue and direction. When they and their mother are evicted from the family apartment, the girls are left with their reluctant aunt, a small town hustler of a woman whose resentment of the girls is matched only by her negligence. Before their mother leaves them behind, she gives her daughters a piggy bank and instructs them to fill the bank with coins they earn for being obedient to their aunt; by the time the bank is full, their mother will return to take them home.
The girls, taking their mother at her word, become single minded in their efforts to fill the bank, meeting friends and rivals along the way and fighting the heartbreaking realization that their mother may never return. Anyone who has ever seen Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows will instantly be filled with dread, and the tension between what might happen to these innocent girls and their perseverance in the face of this indignation gives Treeless Mountain plenty of dramatic thrust.
So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain
Kim’s camera blends tight close-ups of the girls as they negotiate their familial challenges with landscapes and exterior segues reminiscent of Aaron Katz’s Brooklyn sunsets in Quiet City. But most importantly, Kim infuses her young heroines with complex personalities and a dedication to one another that only the innocence of childhood could provide.
In the final segment of the sisters’ adventures through their family tree, Treeless Mountain takes a turn toward hope. Kim allows the dignity of the sisters to win the day and overcome the selfish motivations of the adults in their lives, and as they skip down the road and sing a song together, there is no doubt that it is their bond that will keep their wonder and sense of family alive and thriving. By allowing us to find the hopeful in an otherwise tragic situation, Kim not only creates a fabulous story, but also affirms the power of dedication and imagination as tools for helping good people get through difficult times. I can’t wait to see what she does next.