Oscilloscope // 2008 // 89 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // September 26th, 2009
Sisters are doing it for themselves.
The world can be a cold, cruel place. One of our shields from that reality is the innocence and optimism of childhood. Treeless Mountain, a US-South Korea co-production, is a quiet, lovely portrait of the resiliency of children in a world where adults are all liars.
Two young girls move from their home in Seoul, Korea, to live with their Big Auntie when their mother leaves to search for their estranged father. Left in the marginal care of their alcoholic aunt, the girls learn to fend for themselves in the small town. Believing their mother will return once they have filled their piggy bank, the girls devise ways to earn coins faster. Their hope is tested, however, as their short visit turns into a long stay and Big Auntie grows increasingly intolerant of them.
In her sophomore effort, Korean-American director So Yong Kim (In Between Days) shows her skill at capturing naturalistic performances and telling a richly observed story. Using some nonprofessional actors to play parts (including the two protagonists) definitely lends an air of authenticity to the settings. The movie almost feels like a documentary at times because of the patient manner with which the camera follows the actions of the girls. Kim manages to keep the story lean and she finds the perfect pace for this movie.
Jin (Hee-yeon Kim) is a well-behaved 7-year-old girl and a good student. She's also definitely a city girl so the move to a small town is discomforting for her. That she now must play a bigger role in looking after her younger sister, Bin, requires her to grow up fast. Hee-yeon does such a fine job in the role of Jin that I'm having trouble separating the girl from her character. Jin doesn't say much but she displays that thoughtful facial expression and measured body language of someone with the weight of responsibility on her shoulders. As the possibility that she and her sister have been abandoned settles in, Jin manages to look both heartbroken and brave.
Five-year-old Song-hee Kim contributes her cute, innocent and mischievous presence as Bin. She is likewise completely believable in her role as the baby sister and her big smile goes a long way to lighten the mood of the movie. While neither girl is required to carry any big emotional scenes, they do have an easy rapport between them that makes them convincing as siblings. These are not the kind of showy, irrepressibly cute kids that fall off the Disney assembly line; instead, they act like real kids trying to make the best of a situation despite their limited ability to control the world around them.
In a sense, Big Auntie (Mi-hyang Kim) fulfills the requirement of the movie's villain, but she doesn't easily fit the bill. She's not a cruel woman, though she's certainly very cool toward Jin and Bin. For every scene where she seems attentive to the girls' needs, there are two where she is recklessly uncaring. I was particularly shocked when Big Auntie pushed little Bin out the gate with a bowl and instructions to beg the neighbors for sugar. Similarly, I bristled when she tries to extort money from a neighbor for a minor injury Bin suffered when the girls were playing with her son.
There are two notable strategies in the cinematography by Anne Misawa that are essential to the mood of the film. By shooting mainly close-ups that are lowered to the kids' eye level, it always feels like we're experiencing the story from the perspectives of Jin and Bin. We get a general sense of the surroundings but the camera is trained on the details of the girls' world. Buses transport adults in the distance and business in the town market happens in the background of shots. What we see up close and personal are the sweet snacks the neighbor's mother has set out, the barbecued grasshoppers that Jin plans to sell to the school kids, the coins peeking through the slot of the piggy bank. The adults' conversations take place around corners and in the backs of rooms. They speak as though Jin can't hear them but indeed she does.
Now, I hope that I haven't made this movie sound like too much of a downer. There is an atmosphere of sadness throughout and that's because we're identifying with a pair of sweet girls who don't have the power to affect the adult world around them. We feel for them when they're hungry and we sympathize with their feelings of isolation and rejection. Even though they seem helpless, however, it is their optimism and strength that serves to reassure us that these two heroines are going to see happier days.
The picture presentation on this DVD is very satisfying. The colors are slightly warm but the image is clean and reasonably sharp throughout. The sound is mixed in 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround. The movie is fairly quiet, meaning no big sound effects or dramatic musical flourishes (hardly any music at all, actually) so big sound isn't a necessity. The surround mix does give a bit of dimension to the voices from the front sound stage but I didn't even notice the surround channels. The stereo mix works fine as well, delivering clear dialogue.
Director So Yong Kim and Bradley Rust Gray, one of the film's producers, provide a commentary track of average quality. A lot of their talk is in reaction to what they're seeing on screen but they do address the culture shock of working in Korea and the challenges of working with child actors. Kim also shares a few memories about her hometown, which is where they shot much of the film. There are three deleted scenes and four outtakes included among the extras. The most interesting aspect of these clips is the rough footage where you can hear Kim directing the young actors. It sheds some light on how the performances were achieved through a combination of the director's coaching, the children's talents and the craft of editing.
The best supplemental materials are a pair of interviews. In the first, the director has an informal six-minute chat with her two stars while at a film festival in Turkey -- two years after filming. She asks them some probing questions and it is quite interesting to hear the girls reflect on the experience. The other interview is a 13-minute Q&A session at New York's Film Forum, where the director talks more about the production of the film and the casting. Finally, the trailer rounds out the extras. Oscilloscope Laboratories has packaged the single DVD in a four-panel, folding cardboard sleeve that fits into an outer cardboard slipcase. While the cardboard case is still susceptible to crushing, the extra material makes it feel more solid than typical paper boxes.
The quiet atmosphere of the movie and the gentle strength of Jin and Bin captured my attention but after a while I was anxious for the pall of sadness to be lifted. Lighter moments for the girls are few and far between in this movie and that can make it a frustrating viewing experience. I just wanted to see them happy more often.
The movie's strengths are the completely natural performances by the two child actors. Additionally, the authentic glimpse of small town life in Korea is a slice of culture that I hadn't seen before. Treeless Mountain is worth a viewing for those reasons and more.
Not guilty. The court wants to award hugs to everyone involved.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Korean)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Korean)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated