PICK Treeless Mountain: An American Indie Shot in South Korea

Kid performers naturally introduce elements of magic and mystery into the most banal situations. They are most resonant, however, when their characters are compelled to fend for themselves—childhood as an existential condition—as in Morris Engel's The Little Fugitive (1953), Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon (1995), or So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain. Actually, Treeless Mountain, an American indie made in Korea, doubles the condition by featuring two round-faced, bright-eyed children. Already a latchkey kid with a distracted, prematurely worn mother, six-year-old Jin (Hee-yeon Kim, no relation to the director) is uprooted, along with her younger sister, Bin (Song-hee Kim, unrelated to both), and left in a distant town to stay with a gruffly alcoholic "big aunt" while Mom goes in search of the girls' feckless father. Even when the children have been doubly abandoned, dumped by Big Aunt at their maternal grandparents' farm, Treeless Mountain is skillfully unsentimental—because of, but also despite, the presence of two irresistible, unself-conscious performers in virtually every scene. Taking its title from the barren mound of dirt overlooking the bus stop where the girls last saw their mother, the film is a careful construction. Indeed, it is so closely edited that one is never quite sure how much time has elapsed since the kids were abandoned. But then that's part of the pathos—neither do they.

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