In last week’s New York Times Magazine, film critic A.O. Scott singled out So Yong Kim’s sophomore film Treeless Mountain as exemplary of a new cinematic trend he dubbed ‘neo-neo realism’ – a movement distinguished by its cinema verité aesthetic, use of non-actors, and depiction of problems familiar on a “basic human level.” Although all of these characteristics apply to Treeless Mountain, to describe it as neo-realistic (or neo-neo realistic, as Scott will have it) is to unduly flatten the film. While neo-realism was once criticized for prioritizing socioeconomic conditions over character development, Treeless Mountain doggedly resists this, filming from the shallow and occasionally claustrophobic perspective of Jin, the six-year-old narrator.
The film begins in Seoul, where Jin and her younger sister Bin live with their mother, a caring if overextended parent who soon leaves them with her alcoholic sister-in-law outside the city. As the film progresses, plot gaps are filled in retroactively, drawing a parallel between the viewer’s understanding of the situation and Jin’s rapidly
accelerating maturity. Promised that their mother will return once their piggy bank is full, the girls set up shop selling cooked grasshoppers, an endeavor that ends tragically when they’re left with a full piggy and a letter shipping them off to their grandparents’ farm. Moving from the city to the poverty-stricken countryside, Kim juxtaposes the decomposition of the nuclear family alongside the trend of deurbanization. While Scott is right in locating Treeless Mountain among the ranks of contemporary realist film, where Kim succeeds is in surpassing the genre’s limitations, allowing her characters to quietly reflect the depth of their surroundings, as opposed to the other way around.