Turning her camera on children after the teenage muzziness of In Between Days, director So Yong Kim pulls off an extraordinary balancing act in the affecting Treeless Mountain. Pensive seven-year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and her wide-smiled kid sister Bin (Song Hee Kim) are abruptly deposited with their aunt outside the city; their lovelorn mother leaves with a heartbreakingly transparent promise to return. Building on bereft-moppet cinema from The Children Are Watching Us through avowed influence Nobody Knows, yet distinct, the optimistic Treeless gets at a child’s mix of indiscriminate and limited perspective by porting perceptive moments through fleet behavioral scene-making. And considering Bin sports an adorable princess outfit throughout, the sisters’ making do with their odd hard-bitten aunt comes off as less precious or woebegone than you’d expect, even with the occasional stock-feeling situation (e.g., buttonholing a stranger to phone Mom).
Aiming for this story of these children rather than of childhood generally, Kim succeeds at rendering a close-up youngster-scale perspective: not just the little-project industry of small hands but also the stillness of their neighborhood’s streets, walls, and critter corners. True to her oft-cited inspirational conceit of two kids on a hill, some long shots have the clean figure compositions of traditional landscapes (fulfilling the title’s Eastern-poetic compactness), which feel warmer with a final move to the open air of their grandparents’ farm. Yet some of the most impressive work done here goes on behind the scenery: the extracting and stitching together involved in assembling a coached performance, even by kids with presence like these (especially in comparison to, say, the nonpro work that helps sink contemporary Ramin Bahrani).