Korean sisters Jin (Kim Hee Yeon) and Bin (Kim Song Hee)—the central characters in So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain—are young (6- and 4-years-old, respectively) and adorable. They are emotionally fragile. They are at times neglected. And, despite a certain school of critical thought suggesting otherwise, none of this makes them inherently interesting as subjects of a film.
It’s easy, of course, to feel sympathetic towards Jin and Bin’s plight as it is presented. When their mother (Lee Soo Ah)—recently abandoned by the girls’ father—finds herself unable to pay the bills, she leaves Jin and Bin with her sister-in-law, the girls’ Big Aunt (Kim Mi Hyang). Weeks go by, during which time we watch as Jin and Bin fend mostly for themselves, even if that means scraping together their own dinner when Big Aunt winds up drunk on the floor. Their situation is tragic. It’s also a colossal bore.
Writer/director Kim applied a similar minimalist style to her recent Sundance Film Festival entry In Between Days, and she was able to find compelling material in that narrative’s focus on a young immigrant trying to find her place in the world. Treeless Mountain, however, never allows its young protagonists to become anything in the way of actual characters. They stare forlornly at other kids attending school; they catch grasshoppers to roast and sell for spare change; between these moments, there are lingering shots of cloudy skies. But it means nothing beyond the heart-string-tugging of sad-eyed moppets.
A few years ago, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda told the story of four abandoned children surviving on their own in Nobody Knows. Treeless Mountain plays like a watered-down variation in which there’s far less at stake, coupled with a device—the piggy bank left with the girls when their mother leaves—destined for only one possible outcome. You can feel sorry for these girls, yet feel even sorrier that Treeless Mountain gives us no real reason to care what happens to them.
Kim Hee Yeon, Kim Song Hee, Kim Mi Hyang