Two resilient little sisters bear up as best they can when their desperate mom dumps them with relatives in So Yong Kim’s “Treeless Mountain,” which finds the “In Between Days” filmmaker shifting milieus (from Toronto to her native South Korea) and slightly, though not starkly, altering her methods for this slightly autobiographical tale. A life-affirming conclusion, after several stressful points where tragedy could strike, will raise commercial chances, though only slightly in this risk-averse market.
If Kim’s widely admired debut was touched with contemplation as well as an invitingly rough, pick-up-the-camera-and-go energy, her newest work is slightly more classical and would easily pass as a purely Korean film, even though Kim is based in Gotham with her partner, co-editor and producer, Bradley Rust Gray. Notably, for their Soandbrad production shingle, the pair have made three impressive, personal films about young people on three different continents: Gray’s “Salt,” set in Iceland; “In Between Days” in snowy Toronto; and now “Treeless,” lensed in Seoul and the area around Heung Hae, Kim’s hometown.
Six-year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) attends school in Seoul while her mother (Soo Ah Lee), working to support her kids and barely scraping by, leaves younger daughter Bin (Song Hee Kim) with a neighboring babysitter. The arrangement is suddenly upended when Mom decides — for reasons auds are invited to fill in — that she must find her absent husband. This means yanking Jin out of school and dropping the girls in the lap of her alcoholic sister-in-law, known by all as Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim).
The dramatic shift is played with great restraint and understatement, which actually makes Jin and Bin’s uncertain conditions seem more achingly difficult. Kim avoids the easy out of turning Big Aunt into a threat to the girls; instead, she’s something more interesting: a spinster who never abuses the little ones but barely tolerates them.
It seems to get worse when their mother sends a letter instructing Big Aunt to send the girls to their grandparents’ farm. Again, though, Jin and Bin plow through, and (with Boon Tak Park’s warm grandma) find some gentle pleasures in what has amounted to an odyssey from present-day urban Korea to an older, poorer, agrarian Korea.
Drawing out beautifully natural performances from her child actors, Kim once again has a distinct way of letting her camera observe her characters with kind thoughtfulness, allowing for a quiet mood to wash over the scenes. Anne Misawa’s Super 16mm lensing is sharp and steady, with a great blow-up to 35mm.