Monday, July 27, 2009

MIFF 2009 Review: Treeless Mountain

Treeless Mountain
Dir. So Yong Kim
Year: 2008
Aus Rating: N/A
Running Time: 89mins

Sometimes I find that there are some movies that are just too easy for critics. And by that I mean they feel tailor-made to be tagged with labels such as "masterpiece" and "tremendous", without much thought. The tell-tale signs of such a movie are generally gorgeous cinematography, minimalistic dialogue and a point that is all too conveniently "abstract". I can almost hear the filmmaker extolling such virtues as "I like the audience to come upon their own interpretation of the mis-en-scene".

And that brings me to So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain, a movie that paints a very pretty picture, but didn't convince me that there was much "there". If you know what I mean.

Starring Hee-yeon Kim and Mi-hyang Kim as two sisters in Seoul, South Korea, aged 7 and 5. Early scenes show them at school, eating dinner with their mother (an affecting Soo-ah Lee) and the like. It is not too long, however, before their mother has left them in the care of their aunt for reasons that become vaguely clearer later in the picture, but are always just slightly mysterious. It is here that the story, as much of one that I could decipher, truly starts as these two impressionable and vulnerable girls learn to live with a future that they are unaware is more uncertain than they can fully comprehend.

From here the girls learn to live in the South Korean suburbs. They make friends with a neighbourhood boy and their mother bakes them sweets. They catch grasshoppers and cook them to make small change to fill the piggy bank that their mother told them that when full she would return. And so on it goes before their Aunt (Mi-hyang Kim) ships them off to their grandparents where they must adjust once again. All of this is, of course, set to a recurring palate of sunsets and cloud formations. As if you'd have it any other way.

What there is here is, at times, really quite wonderful though. Hee-yeon is really wonderful as the girl who is trying to be strong, but is actually naive, for reasons she can't quite understand. Several of the supporting cast-members, too, add a wonderful flavour. I'm not sure what the actors name is, but the woman who plays the mother of Mijoo was quite humourous. There are brief sprinklings of insightful dialogue - "can't you play like a princess?" asks the Aunt, quickly growing tired of her new found responsibility - and it does look good.

Here, unfortunately, is the tricky part. Yes, there is a good deal of intriguing issues here, but that's not exactly because of the director. Long takes, shots of light filtering through clouds and sad, crying children don't a masterpiece make. Yes, the film is beautiful and is, at times, moving and thematically quite interesting, but so would any movie about two young children being ditched by their mother and I'm not convinced there is enough bubbling under Treeless Mountain. There is something missing from Treeless Mountain, as if it is empty and is just waiting for audiences to implant their own feelings on the subjects and hail it a masterpiece. "It is about whatever you want it to be about", you know? If So Yong Kim isn't going to put in the effort then why should I? C+

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