When you’re a kid, there’s always so much going on that you don’t understand. You don’t know the names of things. You don’t have categories for all the strange stuff that’s always going on around you. Connections, too, can be mystifying: cause and effect often seem arbitrary, if not magical. Obviously, there’s pluses and minuses to living in this undivided Eden we call childhood. As long as you have an adult around to help you understand and guide you through all this, it can be a wondrous experience. But if the adults have abdicated their role as protectors, and a child is forced as a matter of survival to try to make sense of it all, the strain can either wake them from that innocent idyll or wound them in deep, pre-logical places, with nameless fears and a sense of the malevolence of the universe. In any case, kids seem to have an intuition about certain things. They sense when something isn’t quite right in the grown-up world. They intuit that some adults are nice, others mean – and that some know what they’re doing and others do not. In Treeless Mountain, two sisters feel their way forward through that limbo between innocence and premature knowledge, between a child’s dreams and nightmares.
What makes this film so extraordinary is that the viewer is put in the same position as the children. We’re forced to experience a world of allusion, where meaning comes between the lines, in snatches of conversation in the next room, a furtive gesture. The perspective in another film featuring latch-key kids, the excellent Nobody Knows, is more objective: the viewer is kept back far enough to make judgments about adults who act childish and children who are forced to step up and be the parents. In Treeless Mountain, the point of view is kept subjective – with tight shots of the kids’ faces, sound and action off screen, piecemeal back-story and background — and in unrelieved tension between an adult and child’s worlds.
Jin Lee seems to be about eight years old or so, her little sister Bin, preschool age. Both seem so small and innocent in the big, busy South Korean city. The girls’ mother does the best she can to raise them alone, to create a protective home in that indifferent world. But she’s falling behind: the world she’s trying so bravely to keep out threatens to overwhelm them all. Ultimately, she leaves the girls with her sister-in-law in another town so she can track down “that bastard,” as “Big Aunt” calls her absent brother. From this point, life becomes increasingly difficult and confusing, with threats and dangers that the girls cannot well avoid.
Treeless Mountain reminded me of an Iranian film, bringing us as it does into the children’s point of view. Yet, unlike some films of this sort, the treatment isn’t sentimental and slick; nor is it melodrama. Despite drastic changes in environments, the story takes shape without jarring plot shifts, or a stuttering symbolic shorthand. Here, we get nuances, delicate brushstrokes. The unfolding is so gradual-yet-before-your-eyes, it reminded me of trying to catch the movement of the hands of a clock. Almost imperceptibly, changed conditions begin their corrosive effect on childhood innocence. We see how soon little things will add up to something which, if left untreated, will leave scars for life. Anyone who grew up in remotely similar circumstances may find in Treeless Mountain provokes a painful twinge of memories – wherein the childhood innocence and its loss are tragically inseparable.
Meanwhile, as I observed the various adults in the story dealing with the girls in very different ways, I was struck by similarities between reading a child and reading a film – especially those which, like this one, communicate through allusion, between the lines. In both cases, one has to listen: to be patient and secure enough to withhold judgment, to receive in ways that cannot be communicated along conventional, rational channels. Big Aunt, among her other problems, doesn’t know how to listen to children: she continually misreads, misjudges, and overreacts. Indeed, we get a sense from her of the sort of childhood-robbing upbringing that has left her who she is, and her brother the sort who would abandon his family. Here’s where the stakes rise for these precious little girls, for one must assume that grouchy, alcoholic Big Aunt was one of them once, too.
The process of emerging from the womb of childhood into the cruel world can be like being wakened reluctantly from a pleasant dream – or being shaken awake abruptly. Jin, the elder sister, is left alone much of the time to process what is happening to her and her sibling. As we know, that processing usually involves naming, tracing causation, developing one’s theories – the kind of deep thoughts of youth that serve as handholds up out of innocence. Little Bin seems so caught up in the wonder of the moment that she seems less affected by the turmoil in their lives – at least on the surface. But her lesser capacity to process things means she might actually be in the greater danger.
Treeless Mountain is about what can happen to children: the things that can shape, wound and heal them. It’s a lovely, heartbreaking, sympathetic and ultimately hope-affirming film, but emotions are not strained at any end of the spectrum. And as events unfold for Jin and Bin at the edge of childhood’s dreamland, it becomes clear that parental love is not a sentimental cliché, but a necessity, like water and air.