"Excuse me. I'm selling grasshoppers... I'll give you a discount."
Jin (Kim Hee-yeon) is a girl of elementary school age who, along with her younger sister, Bin (Kim Song-hee), lives with her mother (Lee Soo-ah) in a small apartment within a faceless tenement building in the city. Even though she is just six or seven years old, Jin still has a fair amount of responsibility placed on her shoulders - being required to, daily, pick her sister up from the baby sitter, set the dinner table and help her mother around the apartment, while still being expected to keep her grades up at school - all of which she does without complaint, and with only a minor amount of bed wetting. Her mother, however, is rather world-weary and is clearly having difficulty dealing with all that life has thrown at her. When she and her daughters are evicted from their home, she decides to go in search of Jin and Bin's estranged father - in a last-ditch attempt to get her life back into some sort of order - and takes the girls to stay with their "Big Aunt" (Kim Mi-hyang) while she is gone. Before she leaves, she gives Jin and Bin a large piggy bank and tells them that each time they are well behaved and do what their aunt tells them to, they'll be given a coin to put inside the "piggy", and she promises that, when it is full, she'll return. So, the girls begin their quest to get as many coins as possible, as quickly as possible, in order to ensure that their mother comes back sooner, rather than later...
Treeless Mountain shows us an intricate picture of a world seen from three feet off the ground. Adults are regularly shown as faceless torsos, speaking from high above our field of vision and, as a result, we experience (and become immersed in) events exactly as Jin and Bin see them. With little life experience, the two girls take people and situations at face value, and though their hopes and needs may initially seem small, their importance to the girls quickly makes them equally important to us. As Jin (especially) begins to learn that things aren't always as they appear (or aren't always they way that she's told they are), our awareness that she is, likely, going to be disappointed adds an extra level of poignancy to proceedings. Case in point: The instant the girls have filled "piggy" to the brim with money, they excitedly race to the bus station and wait for their mum to get off the bus - as she promised she would. We already know what the outcome is likely to be, and as the reality of the situation slowly dawns on the girls (in this and subsequent sections), we can almost physically feel their innocent outlook on life being stripped away, resulting in the scenes becoming very moving, and almost painful, to watch. Everything is subtly shown in Treeless Mountain, with nothing being spelt out or preached, and our understanding of each situation comes much more from Bin and Jin's facial reactions and body language than from the words being spoken, thereby drawing us further towards seeing the world as Jin and her sister believe it to be.
Right from the way that Jin and Bin dress (Jin in a functional tracksuit, Bin in a "fairytale princess" dress), through to their actions and reactions, it is clear from early on that the personalities of the two sisters couldn't be more different: Though Jin is physically (and mentally) older than Bin, she is much more introverted, less open and trusting, and it is obvious that the responsibilities with which she has been burdened at such a young age have weighed heavily on her. Bin, by contrast, is much more optimistic - always ready to play, to explore, to try new things and talk to new people - and though she looks up to, and is largely looked after by, her sister, in the end her outlook on life plays as large a part as Jin's down-to-earth, business-like attitude does, in pulling both characters through the situations with which they are presented, and in their ultimate discovery of where happiness and contentment truly come from.
Cinematically, Treeless Mountain positively screams documentary. Intimate and up close camera work, often focusing solely on Jin's face, combined with a totally music-free soundtrack give a noticeable feeling that we could easily be watching real life unfold. Every scene is expertly crafted to be quietly gripping and even the tiniest of events contained within each take on a vital importance as a result. Though the film has an underlying gentleness and innocence derived from our empathy with the characters, there is also a deliberate harshness evident in many of the characterisations of the adults portrayed and, as such, Treeless Mountain is often not an easy film to watch. However, there is a quiet beauty present in every scene and the underlying uplifting, and life-affirming, message makes watching Treeless Mountain an enriching experience.
Aside from Lee Soo-ah and Kim Mi-hyang (as Jin's mother and aunt, respectively) none of the cast are professional actors. To fill the roles of Jin and Bin, director Kim So-yong interviewed a large number of children in various Korean elementary schools - and what an amazing find Kim Hee-yeon and Kim Song-hee are:
Kim Hee-yeon, as Jin, gives easily one of the most natural and believable portrayals I have ever seen in any film. It never once appears that she is acting - seeming, much more, to actually be living the life of her character - and her innate ability to show her cognitive processes perfectly with little more than a tiny glance, or incredibly subtle facial movement, is frankly astounding. In short, her performance single-handedly raises the level of every aspect of Treeless Mountain.
Kim Song-hee, as the much younger Bin, obviously has a less involved role, but her genuine sense of fun, and the obvious warmth of the feelings between her and Kim Hee-yeon, shine through each time she appears on screen.
Considering how young both girls are (and their lack of acting experience), Kim So-yong has accomplished an astounding feat in guiding the children to give such beautiful, believable and utterly engaging performances and note should be made, at this point, of the deleted scenes which form part of the extras - where her unique, and light-hearted, game-playing approach to directing the two girls can be seen.
The remainder of the cast all give great performances but, as this really is Jin and Bin's story, they are much smaller, and more supporting, roles.
A quietly gripping, sometimes painfully heart-breaking, and ultimately life affirming drama, Treeless Mountain provides an unmissable view of the world of the main characters, from three feet off the ground.
edition reviewed here is the Korean version (Region 3) release
which consists of a single disc DVD with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. There are no image artifacts and no ghosting present, and the
picture remains consistently sharp with colours which compliment the documentary feel of the film. The original Korean
language soundtrack is provided as a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 and each is clear and expansive, giving full justice to the soundtrack, and the lack of incidental music allows for much subtler sounds of the world surrounding the girls to be gently accentuated.
Excellent removeable subtitles are provided
throughout the main feature, with the extra feature subtitling being burnt in as part of the image.
Interview (with Kim Hee-yeon and Kim Song-hee)
Post Screening Discussion (with Kim So-yong) - conducted in English
Treeless Mountain (DVD) (Korea Version)
Director: Kim So-yong
Subtitles: English, Korean
Country of Origin: South Korea
Picture Format: NTSC
Disc Format(s): DVD (Single Disc)
Region Code: Region 3