A story of girls abandoned and lessons acquired
It’s a tricky business when smart, articulate filmmakers examine inarticulate lives. How much do you show and how much do you tell? When do you push your characters to where you want them to go and when do you let them get there on their own? Directors in the school of what a recent New York Times article called “neo-neo realism’’ include Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy’’), Ramin Bahrani (“Goodbye Solo’’), Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (“Sugar’’), and So Yong Kim (“In Between Days’’), and each wrestles with the balance between less and more - between observation and intervention. Neo-neo realism, like all approaches to art, is a pose, but it only works when you don’t notice the artist.
Kim’s new movie, “Treeless Mountain,’’ makes only one misstep as far as I can see. It’s a minor one, when the two little Korean girls who have spent the movie being shunted from one relative to another cut loose in a field and sing a song that the end credits inform us is by the American indie rock group Grandaddy. What would these two kids know from Grandaddy? Not much, I’m guessing. On the other hand, a hipster Korean-American filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn probably has the song on her iPod.
So what? So you briefly feel the hand of the director, that’s all - much as when Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah’’ came on at the end of “Sugar’’ and roiled that film’s flow. Even so, “Treeless Mountain’’ casts a sad, pellucid spell. It looks at life from three feet off the ground and meets the hardening gaze of its 6-year-old protagonist head on.
We learn about the adult world as Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) does, processing its mysterious workings through close-ups of her watchful face. We know that her mother (Soo Ah Lee) is preoccupied and teary, and that Jin shoulders the responsibility of bringing her 4-year-old sister Bin (Song Hee Kim) home from day care. But we can only guess why the mother suddenly leaves Seoul and deposits the children with her sister-in-law, Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim). She’s looking for the girls’ father, but where he is or why he left is another riddle.
Big Aunt is cruel and self-absorbed; she makes her living through petty scams in her slum neighborhood and drinks up most of the earnings. The girls run free and build little fantasies of hunger and hope - that the moment they fill up their piggy bank, for instance, mama will get off the next bus. The director establishes an eerie, trusting rapport with her actresses, the older Kim especially - through some alchemical fashion, we’re watching the unmistakable death of childhood in a young girl’s face. “Treeless Mountain’’ doesn’t always find poetry with its long, lingering takes, but when it does, you feel it in your bones.
Kim the filmmaker has based the movie on memories of her own early years, before her family relocated to Los Angeles, and she has also spoken of her debt to 2004’s “Nobody Knows,’’ a similar, if more penetrating study of child abandonment by Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-Eda. “Treeless Mountain’’ feels both masterful and hesitant - it’s the work of a born filmmaker who’s still not quite sure what she wants to say.
One thing we notice is the absence of men anywhere in the film except on the fringes. Barely seen, they still dictate terms: The girls’ vanished father is as responsible for their unmoored lives as their mother, and when Jin and Bin end up in the country at their grandparents’ farm, the grandfather’s a sour buzzard who orders his wife (Boon Tak Park) around.
She ignores him - water off an old duck’s back - and instead teaches the girls the art of peeling scallions and other loamy truths. “Treeless Mountain’’ works its way backward from urban living to agrarian subsistence and back up the generations, too. It says only the oldest soil is deep enough to put down roots.