Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Child’s Perspective: Treeless Mountain

If Anna Paquin really deserved an Oscar for The Piano than Hee Yeon Kim should win two for her feature film debut. Whereas the eleven year-old Paquin was adequate in a supporting role, Kim, the six year-old first-time actress, is the primary lead in So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain (trailer here), on-screen nearly every demanding second of the film. It is an extraordinary performance in a heartrending film, which opens tomorrow at the Film Forum.

Jin loves both the social and academic aspects of elementary school. However, she can never spend much time with friends because she must always hurry home to collect her younger sister Bin from the babysitter. Ever since their father abandoned his family, Jin’s mother has had increasing difficulty making ends meet. Finally, she packs up the apartment and bundles the girls of to their “Big Aunt,” assuring them she will return when they have filled a piggy-bank.

Big Aunt, their absentee father’s sister, is hardly a model of responsibility. Meals are an iffy proposition and Jin no longer attends school. Yet she and Bin continue to live in hope, scrounging change and selling grilled grasshoppers (evidently a perfectly acceptable snack food in provincial Korea) to fill their savings bank, thereby hastening their mother’s return.

Treeless is a closely observed, unsparingly naturalistic portrait of repeated emotional abandonment. Clearly, this can be a very difficult film to watch, despite the graceful visual sense of director Kim and cinematographer Anna Misawa. Created by a Korean-American director, a half-American half-Korean crew, and entirely Korean cast, Treeless leaves the audience with indelible sense memories of its rustic Korean locations.

Of course, without the exceptional performances of its young lead actresses, all the filmmakers’ effort would be for naught. Fortunately, they both prove utterly natural on-camera. Song Hee Kim is excellent as the younger sister Bin, but Hee Yeon Kim’s performance is stunning. She is totally convincing and deeply moving as Jin, the older sister forced by circumstances to grow-up far too soon. Frankly, she is such a smart, resilient kid, yet still so vulnerable, it is hard to understand how her parents could desert her.

Treeless is an emotionally engrossing film that ranks with such classic children’s perspective films, even including The Red Balloon. It is only So Yong Kim’s second film, but it is a remarkably assured work, featuring a haunting and completely unaffected performance by Hee Yeon Kim. Treeless opens tomorrow in New York at the Film Forum, with the director in attendance for the 8:00 screenings on opening night and Friday the 24th.