Resisting the urge to wring tears from childhood tragedy is no cakewalk, but there’s cinematic precedence for such restraint. Jacques Doillon showed it with Nobody Knows. Now So Yong Kim, director of 2006’s In Between Days, joins them with this affecting, semiautobiographical story of two sisters from Seoul who are abandoned by their parents at a brutally tender age.
Jin and Bin (amazing nonpro actors Kim Hee-yeon and Kim Song-hee) share a life of diminishing circumstances: Mom (Lee) dumps them with her bullying, cheapskate sister-in-law, “Big Aunt” (Kim Mi-hyang), to search for their deadbeat dad, promising to return once they fill a plastic piggybank. She reneges, of course, and just as the girls settle into Auntie’s run-down suburban neighborhood they’re uprooted to their grandparents’ farm. It’s an improvement, but the idyll seems as fragile as Bin’s favored princess dress.
Treeless Mountain is frequently agonizing (Big Aunt’s efforts to pawn Jin and Bin off are particularly gut-crumpling), but the girls’ resilience and resourcefulness make it impossible simply to pity them. Small acts of mercy from incidental characters also mitigate the injustice, as do So Yong Kim’s palate-cleansing interscene tableaux, but the implications remain bleak. Indeed, even though the temptation to pick an individual villain is strong, the film assures observant viewers that the culprit is systemic, and that Mom, Grandma and even Big Aunt are ensnared in the same trap as Jin and Bin.—Mark Holcomb
Now playing; Film Forum.