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Original Title:
Namooeobsneun San

South Korea 2008


Kim So-yong

Kim Hee-yeon
Kim Song-hee
Kim Mi-hyang
Lee Soo-ah
Woo Ha-min
Ja Jung-gil
Tak Park-boon
Yong Lee Byung

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Treeless Mountain

Story: Jin (Kim Hee-yeon) is six years old and often has to look after her three-year-old sister Bin (Kim Song-hee) while her mother (Lee Soo-ah) is out. One day the family is forced to move out of their home, though, because the mother isn't able to pay the rent anymore. With a heavy heart the mother takes her children to their aunt (Kim Mi-hyang) and tells them that she will be back as soon as they have completely filled a piggy bank with coins. Every time when they have been good they will get a little bit of change from their aunt. However, the two find other ways to get their hands on money a little bit faster, e.g. frying grasshoppers and selling them to other kids. Meanwhile, they haven't got an easy time at their aunt's, because the aunt often makes the children clean the house and also likes to drink a bit too much. When the piggy bank is full the children longingly wait for their mother's return which is why they stand at a bus stop day after day. Yet, their mother is still looking for the children's father who simply abandoned them and if she isn't able to find him there won't be any way for her to feed her children...

Review: "Treeless Mountain" is one of those contemporary independent films that stand out with their naturalism and are mainly supposed to impress festival goers and critics. At first glance it seems as if it succeeded in doing so as critics are heaping praise on the film. However, those are exactly the movies that make me especially skeptical. And a little bit of skepticism surely seems to be appropriate here, because then it becomes pretty obvious that "Treeless Mountain" is by far not that great and has to struggle with some serious problems. First of all, there is the extremely slow pacing, the minimalistic plot and the fact that the drama often feels like a documentary. Latter might actually be quite appealing to some viewers but in the end this is the reason why the movie appears to be so extremely cold and why the audience can't weave an emotional bond to the suffering of the two girls.

Of course, you could argue that a naturalistic movie should in fact refrain from making use of unnecessary dramatical emotions and that would be ok in my book if it weren't for the full wall between characters and audience. We observe the life of the two little girls like onlookers that are nonetheless right in the middle of what's happening. Which means that the camera always stays with the two girls and accompanies them on their daily routine just as you would see in a documentary. But apparently "Treeless Mountain" is supposed to be a drama first and firemost. On this level the film completely fails. The life the two girls lead is difficult and the circumstances under which they are first given to their aunt by their mother as if they were a burden and after that to their grandparents are surely tragical. But as the emotional warmth is missing in the movie all of this isn't getting close enough to us to really make us suffer along with the children.

The story unfolds slowly and in a very minimalistic fashion whereas it's always easy to follow it. There are also a few scenes in which you can find different motives and other symbols. Interpretation of them is welcome, however, the film also confirms one of my theories, which is that those works in which nothing is happening at all, or at least not much, are predestinated to be over-interpreted. Naturally, you are desperately looking for a meaning where you can actually find nothing else and eventually that leads to ludicrous interpretations like the one that the two girls stand for North and South Korea, the mother for America that is turning her back on Korea and the aunt is depicting the corrupt Korean government. Even I was tempted to believe that the construction vehicles in the background of the rural idyll at the end of the movie actually had a certain meaning. But even director Kim So-yong says that this is just a simple story about a girl who has to grow up prematurely.

Director Kim works his own childhood experience into the film. Jin in fact has to grow up at a very early age and that's happening before you know it when you have to look after a younger sister. Despite somehow still being a six-year-old child that in her innocent naivity believes that her mother is really coming back when the piggy bank is full, which is why she is putting all her efforts into filling it up as fast as possible. Insect lovers have to cope with a lot in this film as we are seeing how grasshoppers are spiked and fried in numerous scenes. These scenes once more underline the extremely naturalistic style of the movie. Jin is also characterized by a certain prudence that makes her refuse the food of a supposedly friendly woman, even though she is often going hungry. She also rejects eating in order to express her inner dissatisfaction or she is giving her little sister her share. Bin on the other hand is just the little sister that has to be looked after so that she isn't fooling around too much, although she also has some pretty good ideas for a girl of her age.

A definite plus of the film are the two child actors who are acting very naturally, almost is if the camera weren't there at all. It actually seems as if they weren't acting and that's adding a lot to the movie. Director Kim So-yong therefore doesn't make use of the cuteness factor of the two little girls but lets them act within the framework of a story that depicts a life itself. This life is shown in all of its marginal details so that "Treeless Mountain" gets a serious problem with its pacing. At some points this and also the tristesse of the sets makes the movie somewhat tiring. Therefore, what's left to say at the end, and this irrespetive of the fact that the film is highly praised by other critics and even won a price at the Berlin International Film Festival: "Treeless Mountain" is lengthy and too minimalistic to really be able to win over the viewer. However, the two child actors can save the movie.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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