For all of the wealth of films produced by middle-aged directors which focus on the coming-of-age of female adolescents – a subject which can take in as great and diverse films as Gigi (1958), Mouchette (1967) and Spirited Away (2001) – the lives of protagonists of a younger age are proportionally under-represented in film. Why should this be? As characters are they are more difficult to delineate convincingly, their personalities emerging but yet to form fully? Is imposing a narrative onto characters who are yet to be able to perceive such a concept is too great an artifice? Maybe it is simply that their lives are viewed as being simply not interesting enough.
Filling this void is Asian-American director So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain which places the world of young children at its very centre, observing the rhythms and small triumphs of their lives with a quiet patience. Like her strongly autobiographical début feature In Between Days (2006), her second film takes elements of her own childhood as the inspiration for its storyline, but while it may be looking further back into her own life story, it represents a for her a large career step forward; in asking the viewer not to judge or moralise, her strongly observational style serves to portray elegantly the world as viewed through a child’s eyes.
The story introduces us to six-year old Jin, making her way home from school and picking up her younger sister Bin, who is being looked after in their neighbours’ flat. Their busy working mother is a notable absentee, and who on eventually arriving is evidently too harried to pay her children their due care and attention. On a following day we see her take them on a long bus ride out of the city where she announces that she is going to go away in search of their estranged father, and in the meantime they are to stay in this strange new town with their Big Aunt, whom they are introduced to for the first time. She gives the girls a large piggy bank, promising to return as soon as they manage to fill it with coins.
Life with their Big Aunt in this strange new town proves to be troublesome – far from being a caring foster-parent she pays them scant attention, leaves them undernourished and proves quite happy to use them as a means to blackmail money from another child’s mother in order to fund her alcoholism. The girls learn to take refuge with a generous and kindly neighbour, and discover that if they catch and cook grasshoppers they can make money with which to fill their piggy bank which they continue to believe, heartbreakingly, will guarantee the speedy return of their mother.
These relatively bare bones are as much as the film offers in terms of plotting, and aside from the initial drama of the children’s abandonment, there is little concession to providing narrative impetus – only the sub-narrative of the girls’ quest to fill up their piggy bank offers any sense of direction – and this noticeable absence suggests that the children, whose eyes we are undeniably witnessing events through, are yet either to form or to expect narrative coherence as an overlay to life. This lack of event makes it is possible to come away with an impression that the film is a touch slight, but while there are certainly passages of the film which play slowly, start to peel away at its layers and what begins to emerge is a work of remarkable complexity beneath its seemingly simple surface.
Firstly, it is revealing what director So Yong Kim chooses not to do as much as what she does do with such material. Tonally, we are not in the realms of the lyrically elegiac (The Spirit of the Beehive (1975)), the polemical (The 400 Blows (1959)) or the harshly poetic (Forbidden Games (1952)) but rather strictly observational: the vérité filming style and the hugely naturalistic acting from the two very young leads gives the film an authentic, documentary-like feel, and the regular use of close-ups gives a heightened sense of intimacy with the main characters. Through what we are selectively shown, the film sees the child’s viewpoint not as an essentially simplistic one awash with incomprehension and fear, but instead one with a combined sense of wonder and curiosity. As such, its closest forebear may be Koreeda Hirokazu’s similar Nobody Knows (2004).
If Treeless Mountain shares a kinship with any broader genre then it is mostly Italian neorealism, both in terms of its non-studio location shooting and eye for everyday detail, as well as extensive use of non-professional actors. Though lacking the movement’s tendency for out-and-out melodrama, there is curiously the very De Sica-like subtle background use of fairytale archetypes: the absent parent and quest to ensure her return, the wicked stepmother charged with their keep, and the two princesses exiled in a strange land – the latter point highlighted by the young Bin’s wearing of a princess-like dress in many scenes.
What often goes unnoticed about the classic De Sica films is that they take place over a very carefully-defined period of time, in Treeless Mountain it seems the opposite is true: there are no visual or verbal signposts within the diegesis to indicate whether hours, days or months are passing, events happen episodically but the only indicator of timescale is the girl’s piggy bank gradually filling up – though this too proves no measure as they later discover how to go about filling up quicker. Relocated to a strange new location and no longer subject to the everyday rhythms of their previous lives, time for the girls within the film seems to have stopped.
It is in this stasis that the girls are left to discover this new world on their own terms, and the real drama of the film emerges from the focus on the girls’ interactions with each other: their slow realization of the reality of their situation, their overcoming of certain naiveties, and ultimately their acceptance of their new lives, achieving a kind of Bressonian transcendence. It is this which prevents the tone from being overly morose, and viewing the girls’ lives as somehow quietly triumphant lies in contradiction to the view of the lives of adults as riddled with problems and alienation.
There are other questions which reside in the background, outside of the children’s perception, questions which another film might have sought to answer: what happened to the father? Why is the sister-in-law unmarried? As the film transfers from the city to the town and then on to the countryside, how much of the social dislocation we see can be placed on increasing urbanization in Korea? However, it is only as adult observers that we have been taught to pick up on such matters; for the girls in Treeless Mountain, whose eyes have not yet learned how to perceive them, they have yet to take on any importance. As such, it may be one of the most accurate cinematic accounts of the experience of childhood yet.