Treeless Mountain
Standing back to back, they’re ready to defend the mountain from all challengers.

Theatrical Release Date: 04/22/2009 (USA), 08/27/2009 (South Korea)
Director: So Yong Kim
Cast: Hee-yeon Kim, Song-hee Kim, Mi-hyang Kim, Soo-ah Lee, Park Boon Tak

Growing up is hard to do. There are plenty of pitfalls and obstacles once must avoid. This is made even harder if your Mom ships you off to live with an alcoholic Aunt while she hopes to reconcile with Dad. Such is the situation presented in director So Yong Kim’s “Treeless Mountain”.

6-year-old Jin and 3-year-old Bin (Hee-yeon Kim and Song-hee Kim, no relation) are given a piggy bank and told that when they’re good, they’ll get a coin. When the bank is full, Mom will return to take them back. What follows is a sublimely powerful and methodical story of the bond between the sisters.

Their tenure with Big Aunt (as she’s called) is a mix of good and bad. While it’s impressive she would take the children in, her alcoholism leads to plenty of time when Jin is the primary caretaker for Bin and it’s in these scenes that I marvel at how poignant and emotionally complex these child actors can be. There’s a naturalism to them, as they are not professional actors, and So Yong Kim did an amazing job of being able to capture the mood and feelings she wanted out of the girls.

The film is also about the bond between women in general. While Big Aunt isn’t always cogent enough to be there for the girls, there are other neighbor women who give the girls cookies and a place to come to when they need help. Each of these ladies see that the girls need caretakers and accept their role, even if only because they feel obligated.

Eventually, Jin and Bin are sent to live with their grandparents while Mom is still out trying to get enough things together to reunite the family. Here again, Grandma is the maternal force that keeps everything together. Not only is it admirable to see her toiling in the fields, displaying a remarkable work ethic – she uses these tasks to bond with her grandchildren and they each gain a small measure of self confidence, making their time awaiting Mom’s return that much more palatable.

I know that’s a lot of plot to reveal in a film review (since I prefer not to do that usually) but the beauty here doesn’t lie in the plot points; it’s in the tremendous amount of heart the young girls can convey over the course of the film. I readily admit that the pacing is something akin to glacial speed and there were moments when I found myself getting a bit on the sleepy side. Just take that as a recommendation not to watch this late at night or right before your afternoon siesta.

“Treeless Mountain” is a marvelous piece of film making and foreign/independent film fans should put this on their list of DVDs to rent. A 4 out of 5, this is easily one of the years best foreign language films and I can only hope that this doesn’t make the Hollywood remake list because I’d hate to bad mouth children for being a part of some terribly simplistic version of this profound work.