Any movie featuring children under 10 is a movie wherein documentary bids to trump fiction and behavior can eclipse acting. The 1934 New Deal flag-waver Stand Up and Cheer! will remain ever fresh for featuring 5-year-old Shirley Temple's precocious (and relatively unedited) hoofing alongside genuinely incredulous veteran vaudevillian James Dunn.
Kid performers naturally introduce elements of magic and mystery into the most banal of situations. They are most resonant, however, when their characters are compelled to fend for themselves — childhood as an existential condition — as in Morris Engel's The Little Fugitive (1953), Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon (1995), Jacques Doillon's Ponette (1996), or, opening this week, So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain.
Actually, Treeless Mountain, an American indie made in Korea, doubles the condition by featuring two round-faced, bright-eyed children. Already a latch-key kid with a distracted, prematurely worn mother, 6-year-old Jin (Hee-yeon Kim, no relation to the director) is uprooted, along with her younger sister, Bin (Song-hee Kim, unrelated to both), and left in a distant town to stay with a gruffly alcoholic "big aunt," while mom goes in search of the girls' feckless father.
Less mean than selfishly irresponsible (particularly as compared to Jin), Big Aunt complains about her charges, spends their food money on rice wine, sends them out to beg the neighbors for salt, uses a playground scratch to extort cash from other parents, and occasionally goes AWOL. She also neglects to enroll the girls in school — leaving them even more to their own devices. Resentful but resourceful, Jin and her sidekick cadge treats from the nice mommy of a mentally retarded boy living next door, and then go into business — catching and roasting grasshoppers to sell to other children as snacks.
The girls accumulate coins and carefully deposit them in the piggy bank that is the signifier of their mother's return. She left it with them, explaining that she would be back when it was full. As literal-minded as these two extremely well-behaved children are, they assume that changing their large-denomination coins for a fistful of smaller ones will hasten the happy day. Their magical thinking is perfectly pitched. Like Kim's previous film In Between Days, about a teenaged Korean girl recently arrived in North America, Treeless Mountain is at least emotionally autobiographical. (The filmmaker says she was similarly deposited when her mother immigrated to the U.S.)
Predicated on the natural resilience of their pint-size protagonists, kid-perf movies are necessarily affirmative. (As Lillian Gish says of her little charges in the not-unrelated but considerably darker Night of the Hunter: They abide.) Treeless Mountain is no exception to this rule, although it's also canny enough to resist musical cues or other forms of overt emotional manipulation. Even when the children have been doubly abandoned, dumped by Big Aunt at their maternal grandparents' farm, Treeless Mountain is skillfully unsentimental — because of, but also despite, the presence of two irresistible, unself-conscious performers in virtually every scene. The children are almost always shot in close-up. The tight focus on the girls gives the film a pleasingly spare quality even as it allows the filmmaker to assemble their performances shot by shot. (As an exercise, it suggests the way that the sound mixers on Guys and Dolls painstakingly dubbed tone-deaf Marlon Brando's songs, note by note.)
Taking its title from the barren mound of dirt overlooking the bus stop where the girls last saw their mother, Treeless Mountain is a careful construction. Indeed, the movie is so closely edited that we are never quite sure how much time has elapsed since the kids were abandoned. But then that's part of the pathos — neither do they.