Friday, July 17, 2009

When girls must fend for themselves

The unseen backstory of "Treeless Mountain" involves a young woman who left her parents' farm and headed for Seoul. There, she met a man, became involved and had two daughters. She probably loved him, but he may not have loved her. Eventually, the girls' father split, leaving Mom to make it on her own. As often happens with a desperate parent, Mom burdened her oldest daughter, 7-year-old Bin (Hee Yeon Kim), with a variety of tasks, picking up her 4-year-old sister Bin (Song Hee Kim) at daycare, for example.

I don't know if director So Yong Kim, who now lives in Brooklyn, had precisely the same backstory in mind, but that's what I thought about while watching "Treeless Mountain," a movie that can be read as a critique of what happens when economics, boredom and the rejected tradition drive women toward the cities.

None of this, of course, is on view in "Treeless Mountain,'' and perhaps I'm creating my own movie, an accompaniment to Kim's story about two girls who -- for the most part -- are left to their own devices.

"Treeless Mountain," which opens today at the Starz FilmCenter, is sensitively wrought and features terrific performances from its two young actors. In addition, Kim wisely keeps the movie's big moments from devolving into melodrama. Her slow-moving, naturalistic style seeps its way into our consciousness. She trusts us to know sadness when we see it.

During the movie, 7-year-old Jin is removed from school. Jin and her sister, Bin, are forced to deal with harsh conditions as they await the return of their mother, who has gone off in search of their father. Where is he? Why has he left the family? Kim leaves it to us to speculate. For her part, Mom drops the children at the home of Big Aunt, an irresponsible drunk. She shows the children no love, and frequently neglects to feed them.

Like most people in bad situations, the kids allow themselves to dream. At one point, they begin roasting and selling grasshoppers in the street. They hope to make enough money to fill a plastic piggy bank left by their Mom, who promised to return once the bank is full. It's a promise we know they shouldn't bank on.

At times, I became mildly impatient with "Treeless Mountain," which moves slowly, sometimes because movies such as this always move slowly, and I could have done without lengthy nature shots that separate scenes: They seem self-consciously designed to allow us even more breathing room.

Kim doesn't go the distance when it comes to absolute grimness, which probably makes her movie even more realistic. She's not pulling out every horrible stop. Still, there's something deeply sad about the situation in which these kids find themselves. Even at their most resourceful, Jin and Bin can't navigate a world they're not equipped to handle.

Only one adult male can be found in the film, the girls' ornery grandfather, who appears when the girls are taken to the country and dumped with their grandparents. Aside from Grandma and the mother of a kid in Big Aunt's neighborhood, most of the women in the movie don't behave admirably, either.

A lot of what we see is quite moving, but I admired the way Kim asks us to fill in blanks. For me, the most interesting question involves the future. What will become of Bin and Jin after the film ends -- not in the next few weeks, but in the next five years? Once the curtain falls, you may find yourself continuing the movie in your head.


The French movie, "The Girl From Monaco," explores what happens when a middle-aged lawyer (Fabrice Luchini) meets a vivacious young blond (Louise Bourgoin) whose lack of inhibition both frightens and charms him. Luchini's Bertrand visits Monaco to defend a woman (Stephane Audran) who has been accused of murder. Against his will, he's assigned a bodyguard (Roschdy Zem), a stoic man who warns against yielding to temptation with Bourgoin's Audrey, a TV weather girl who knows how to make a man's temperature boil. The film eventually trades its comic tone for something more serious; the swap doesn't entirely work, but some of the late-picture developments in "The Girl From Monaco" may take you by surprise.

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