Friday, April 24, 2009

Treeless Mountain

Writing back in 2007 about So Yong Kim’s debut feature In Between Days, I noted “This is a film that makes a lot of effort to know its characters. If only it had achieved a corresponding aesthetic conception instead of leaving us with a muddled visual mess, [it] could have been among the year's triumphs.” In retrospect, and without having rewatched the film in the interim, it seems that I was chiefly objecting to a certain perennially popular aesthetic, conspicuously present in that movie, that favors close-ups and hand-held camerawork to more carefully composed long shots. But what struck me then as Days’ biggest weakness now seems to me to account for Kim’s latest film’s principle triumph. Treeless Mountain’s no masterpiece, but in keeping its visual perspective closely centered around its two pint-sized protagonists, the picture effectively narrows its consciousness until a world scarcely seems to exist outside of the perceptions of its central figures, at least until it widens a smidge in the film’s final act.

Following 6-year old Jin and 3-year old Bin as their mom uproots them from their urban life in Seoul and deposits them at the suburban home of their “Big Aunt” and later at their grandparents’ farm, the film charts the girls’ day-to-day interactions in a series of uncomfortably tight framings that only let up for the occasional visual interlude, a red sunset or a nighttime cityscape. Most of the rest of the film’s shots contain either or both of the girls and, while there are few direct point-of-views, the film seems at all times closely tied to their perspective. As Jin and Bin look on, the adult world hovers perpetually at the margins, not understood, an alien existence that views the girls as objects of indifference or, in the case of their churlish, tight-fisted aunt, as little more than a nuisance.

But children can be surprisingly adaptable and these two make do with frequent changes. While at their aunt’s house, kept out of school, they spend the day catching and grilling grasshoppers to sell to the local boys, sneaking out to buy a chocolate bun or keeping watch for their mom’s return. Later at the farm, they revel in the open spaces of the fields and the kind attentions of their grandmother. As played by Hee-yeon Kim and Song-hee Kim (no relation), Jin and Bin are cute enough, but the filmmaker shuns any obvious look-at-me adorability, directing her young leads to a near Bressonian blankness, even if at least for one moment (when they gleefully trade large coins to a shopkeeper for a much greater quantity of smaller ones), they prove rather irresistible. Still there’s a limit to what Kim’s approach can achieve. Visually, she’s able to suggest the point-of-view of a single (or in this case, dual) perspective, but we never get the sense that she’s gotten anywhere beneath the surface of her young characters. Given the obvious difficulty of penetrating such an unformed consciousness and with respect to the filmmaker’s more modest ambitions, we should have every reason to be pleased with the movie’s obvious pleasures. Still it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is one project that remains (and is content to remain) a distinctly minor achievement.

No comments: