So Yong Kim's remarkable film never spells out exactly what Jin or Bin is thinking, the camera implies how they see.
Bin (Song Hee Kim) likes to wear a pale blue princess gown. It's a gift from her mother, she says. Ankle-length and trimmed with faux fur, it's not the easiest costume to wear when navigating sidewalks crowded with adults in a hurry. Her face determined and her gait awkward, Bin follows along with her young mother (Soo Ah Lee) when she beckons, obedient and unworried.
Bin's utter trust in the adult world is about to be tested, along with that of her older sister, Jin (Hee Yeon Kim). At six, Jin already has more responsibility, not quite comprehended but completely accepted. She wears a school uniform, not a princess dress. She carries a bookbag and each day after school, she must hasten home to retrieve Bin from their neighbor's apartment. When, at the start of Treeless Mountain, Jin is a few minutes late, she is scolded first by the unseen neighbor and then by her mother. The camera stays closely focused on Jin's face as she peeps up at her mother, the kitchen counter far above her head. "Do I always have to tell you?" mom asks sternly. "Don't be late again."
Jin is already worried, as she has noticed her mother's anxious face. Though So Yong Kim's remarkable film never spells out exactly what Jin or Bin is thinking, the camera implies how they see. To this end, the frames are mostly close on the sisters' upturned faces, busy fingers, or rushy colored patches of their clothing. Running down the stairway at school, Jin and her classmates appear a blur of plaid uniforms and matching blobs of yellow bookbags, but as they separate on the sidewalk, Jin watching her friends depart together as she heads off to her own obligation, the camera keeps a careful, observant distance. Each mode -- near or far -- hints at little Jin's pondering of the world.
Of course, her understanding of her own circumstances is limited. When her mother decides that her daughters will have to go stay with their Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim) in Seoul for an undetermined time, Jin accepts it, even as she worries. Their father has apparently run off (Big Aunt calls him a "bastard" and mom looks pained whenever someone references him), and mom says she's going to find him. When they arrive by bus in Big Aunt's urban neighborhood, surrounded by their bags, the girls sit quietly, uncertain, as mom steps beyond view, intently focused on her cell phone, trying to reach her sister-in-law. Perhaps predictably, Bin wanders off toward the market, drawn by promises of tasty fish and intrigued by the slippery creatures, glinting in sunlit tubs of water, mom dashes back into frame. Grabbing up the four-year-old, she deposits her in front of Jin. "Stick to your sister," she instructs the younger girl, then scolds Jin for taking her eye of Bin.
Big Aunt's promises to look after the girls are hardly comforting. Almost as soon as mom leaves, she tells Jin that she and her sister are "a real pain," partly because Jin is, sometimes, still wetting the bed at night (a secret her mother said was between them) and partly because Big Aunt has her own routine, now disrupted. It's not long before her tendency to spend afternoons and evenings at a local bar is revealed, leaving the girls to scrounge for dinner or breakfast as she lays unconscious, whether on her bed or the floor.
Jin's face remains a constant point of reference and reflection for Treeless Mountain. She reveals little as he ponders a neighbor boy's grilling of grasshoppers on stacks (which he ten sells for 10 cents apiece, a worthy lesson in survival) or sleeps on a mat on the floor, in the deep dark of Big Aunt's apartment at night. From a longer distance, as she climbs to the top of a dirt pile to watch her mother board a bus to nowhere Jin can imagine, she cries out, Bin joining in behind her, the blue princess dress showing signs of wear. During one of Jin's most plainly emotional outbursts, the camera does not show her face. Rather, it watches through a window as Big Aunt reprimands her and tells her to stand with her arms up as punishment. Jin's small figure begins, slowly, to shake, as she starts to cry and then to weep, the weight of her collapsing world unbearable and yet, endured. "Put your hands down," commands Big Aunt, vexed by the eruption. "Go out and play. Stop crying!"
Believing that their mother will return, the girls discover their own rhythms over the weeks at their aunt's home. Soon they're standing each afternoon at the bus stop, hoping to greet mom as she comes back to them, but she never appears. As they work through their own imminent emotions, born of mutual dependence and resentment, hope and doubt, the sisters spend hours and hours together. At last Big Aunt reveals that she has received a letter from their mother, and that she is not returning so soon as she expected.
Again the sisters are uprooted, this time to their grandmother's (Boon Tak Park) farm in the Korean countryside. Here the girls listen in the foreground while the adults argue in an unfocused background. Though they have come to begrudge Big Aunt, her departure is horrifying. In a brilliantly evocative composition, Big Aunt heads to the gate as the camera watches her back, the sounds of the off-screen sisters' running feet and their cries after her marking their sudden horror. The aunt turns back briefly as the girls stand in frame, pushed to the right and left behind again. They wave, she says goodbye, and she's gone.
Jin and Bin survive, even find solace in observing and then sharing in their gruff grandmother's daily customs, making dough and gathering sticks and grasshoppers. As Jin discovers this is something she knows how to do, she discovers a pattern in her life, or at least some small bit of carryover. However she's making connections or interpreting her sense of abandonment (she calls her mother a "big liar" on learning she's not coming back as she had promised), Jin is a complex and fascinating individual. And Treeless Mountain treats her as such, rather than as a prop for an adult plot, or the object of adult fantasy or nostalgia. As small and focused as it is, Jin's story provides for a kind of consummate cinema, a story premised on looking, absorbing, and understanding a world that seems at first overwhelming.