Two young girls are the center of So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain, an intimate story of loss and disappointment but also enchantment and hope which slowly unfurls in the city and countryside of Kim’s native South Korea. Like her first film, In Between Days, Treeless Mountain eschews the world of adults and instead illuminates the emotional lives of young people. Here, it’s Jin and Bin, who have been shuffled out of their Mom’s cramped apartment to go live with their Big Aunt.
Mom has left to look for their father, leaving Jin and Bin with a bright red plastic piggy bank. In her parting words, she promises to come back to get her girls once the bank is full. Filling the piggy bank provides a distraction from life with Big Aunt, who sometimes forgets to feed the girls when she’s been drinking too much and sends them off to find food on their own. To fill the bank and pass the time, the girls start collecting grasshoppers to sell to local boys who turn them into a crispy delicacy.
So Yong Kim is one of those rare filmmakers who takes children seriously, and she bestows rapt, precise attention on the girls’ every-changing reactions to their uncertain future. Low angles and close-ups bring the viewer close to their anxieties and frustrations of a seemingly unjust adult world. While their faces share the sadness of a bus arriving without a promised passenger or the excruciating blow of a handwritten letter, they also express the joys of a perfect sweet bun and the wide-eyed awe of grandma’s dumpling dough. Such minutiae might be dismissed as boring and irrelevant, but Treeless Mountain perfectly narrates a series of emotions that, in the film’s final chapter, allows Jin and Bin to take a break from worry to bask in the glow of the sun, the sky, and Grandma’s toothy smile.