Thursday, April 23, 2009

Treeless Mountain (KOREAN)

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Korean Kids Fend for Themselves in Dysfunctional Family Drama

Bin (Hee-yeon Kim) is really taken aback the fateful day her mother (Soo-ah Lee) yanks her out of school early to send her and her little sister (Song-hee Kim) to live with their alcoholic aunt (Mi-Hyang Kim). Although she’s only six years-old, the precocious kid has sense enough to protest.
But children that age don’t have final say over their affairs, so they can only listen helplessly to their irresponsible mom’s instructions to be good while she’s away, for which they will be rewarded by their auntie’s placing a coin in a piggy bank whenever they behave. On her way out the door, the mother promises to return by the time the bank is filled, before disappearing forever, supposedly in search of her daughters’ deadbeat dad.
As a result, by the time the piggy overflows, there’s still no sign of mom,
and even abusive auntie has had just about enough of her nieces and the entire charade. So, she dumps the burdensome tykes on the doorstep of their grandmother’s (Boon-tak Park) farm in the country, but that rural arrangement ultimately doesn’t work out either.
Thus unfolds Treeless Mountain, a surprisingly-mellow meditation on what would ordinarily be a frightening ordeal. Sensitively shot from the perspective of these tiny victims of child neglect, this engaging tale spans the course of a tough summer during which the spunky sisters overcome a host of challenges with practically-perfect aplomb.
Unless you believe that such Little Rascals-like scenarios sans adult supervision are plausible, on some level you know that kids this size couldn’t really successfully fend for themselves on their own. Yet, the picture does feel authentic, probably because the adventure is semi-autobiographical in nature, ostensibly being based on the unfortunate childhood of its writer/director So-yong Kim.
The movie marks the sophomore offering from Ms. Kim (In Between Days), who was born in South Korea, but grew up in L.A. Perhaps being raised near Hollywood explains what enabled her to transform Seoul into a magical land of make believe where a couple of cute orphans might manage to survive by their wits.
A surrealistic charmer blessed with some breathtaking cinematography.

Very Good (3 stars)
In Korean with subtitles.
Running time: 89 minutes
Studio: Oscilloscope Pictures

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