So Yong Kim’s debut feature, In Between Days, depicted an adolescent romance between Korean immigrants in Canada; it was notable for the way Kim kept her frame tight on the faces of her protagonists, shutting out any people, places, or objects that were extraneous to the would-be couple’s intensely self-absorbed experience. For Treeless Mountain, Kim employs a similar strategy, keeping her camera low to the ground and trained on extreme close-ups of mundane objects, in order to replicate the point of view of a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old whose mother has left abruptly, sticking them in a home with an indifferent relative. The girls’ “Big Auntie” drinks herself into a stupor and often fails to feed them—“Why waste my money?” she grumbles—so the youngsters survive by roasting crickets and scrounging snacks from sympathetic neighbors. Because no one’s really in charge of them, these kids get by on pure caprice. Even their plan to wish their mother back by earning enough coins to fill their piggy bank is, to put it mildly, not that well thought-through.
Treeless Mountain suffers some in comparison to Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s poetic, heartbreaking Nobody Knows, which has a similar premise but a wider scope. Still, it’s hard to watch these sad, cute little faces without feeling a little torn up as their world falls apart. The amount of effort they put into meeting their everyday needs—something to eat, a warm place to sleep, a rudimentary acknowledgment of their own existence, etc.—renders every setback a tragedy and every small gesture of kindness a triumph. Kim’s aesthetic is arguably more effective here than it was on In Between Days; her choice to fill the screen with nearly everything she shoots has the effect of making plastic toys look like talismans and adult faces look almost mythical in their kindness or indifference. At times, Treeless Mountain almost feels like a fairy tale—but without the magic.