Neo-Neo Realism – Treeless Mountain by So Yong Kim

After the brutality of the World War II and with the end of the Fascist Regime in 1943, a turn of events took place in the history of film making, and emerged some notable Italian movies that took hold of the interest of the international audience. Italian directors involved themselves in what we know was ‘Neo-realism’ as a tribute to their freedom from the Fascist regime. Since the roots of this movement belong to Italy, it is commonly also known as ‘Italian Neorealism’. It existed from 1944 to 1952, later on influencing different styles in many countries all round the globe, like the ‘New French Wave’ in France and recently emerged movement called the ‘Neo- Neo-Realism’ in the U.S.

The whole idea of the neo-realism style was to portray the harsh realities of life and bring about in focus, the social-economic issues that emerged after the Second World War. Neorealism was a style that wanted to describe reality without actually involving a documentary but in form of constructed situations. If certain characteristics that make it different from other movements are to be listed, then the first in line would be the absence of a neat script. Never was a ‘happy ending’ shown in any film in this style of film making, unlike the classic Hollywood style. With this style, the shooting of films in studios shifted out to real-life locations, it was the first time something like this was done. They were moreover filmed with non-professional actors; their awkwardness and lack of self consciousness involved in acting were the most appreciated qualities.

Neo-realism spread over many countries, and movies in many languages started coming up, like Italian, French, English, Japanese, Indian, Iranian and many more. One of them is Treeless Mountain. Treeless Mountain (in Korean: Namueopneun San) is a South Korean movie released in the year 2008. It falls under the category of ‘Neo Neo Realism’ as suggested by A.O Scott, a critic, in the New York Times Magazine. The movie has been written and directed by an independent female director So Yong Kim. It premiered on September 5, 2008 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The movie is about two girls, seven year old Jin and her younger sister Bin, who live with their Mom, in Seoul, until they had to leave the city and travel to the outskirts of the city, so that their Mom could leave them with their ‘Big Aunt’ and then leave to find their ‘runaway’ father. She leaves them with a piggy bank and promises them that she’ll return to them when their piggy bank was full with whatever money they got from their Aunt after they did their chores obediently. The Aunt was drunk or hangover-ed most of the time, so the girls were left to look after each other on their own. The girls try to support each other, figuring out ideas as to how to fill the piggy bank, ranging from schemes like selling roasted grasshoppers to local boys, to changing whole coins to smaller coins and increasing the quantity so as to fill the bank faster. Once filled, they used to wait at the bus stop where they saw their Mom last, everyday, from day to night. They lost hope on the return of their mother when it was revealed to Jin by her Aunt through her Mom’s letter that she won’t be returning back for them as she cannot support them without the presence of their father in the family, who is still missing. Both Jin and Bin were taken to their maternal grandparents place as instructed by their mother, and then they settle there in the countryside, obeying and doing different tasks put forward by their caring yet busy grandmother. The movie ends with the girls pinkie-promising each other, that one day their mother would return for them.

Jin and Bin fill their piggy bank, as they wait for their mother to return.

The movie, however slow-paced it is, has a largely realistic storyline. There is no ‘happy ending’ as promised by neorealists, which upholds the main characteristic of a neo-realistic movie. The movie instead ends with the girls still waiting and hoping they would have a better life and be with their mother in the future. The locations include the city, the outskirts, and the countryside. The locations chosen are realistic without much tampering done to them. From the school environment, to the middle-class flat, to the flooded market, to the simple country side, everything was naturally portrayed. The storyline even portrayed mundane, non-important activities like Jin washing Bin’s fairy costume, Jin collecting beer bottles lying in the house and stacking them in one place, thereby portraying the realities of the life as suggested by neo-realism. The movie tries to send across the feeling of being neglected, through the eyes of these kids and the cruel adult way of life that forces them to lose their innocence faster. Through the course of the movie, we can see how Jin grows and understands the reality and responsibilities that surround her.

The mis-en-scene followed in the movie is interesting too. Apart from the realistic location, the director made sure the camera was always on the eye level, and zoomed in most of the time on the faces of the characters so as to detail their emotion, innocence and intimacy, especially in the kids. As quoted by the director, So Yong Kim, she did this also so as to “include the audience in the situations with the characters, rather than observing from far away”. No noticeable background score is played in the film, though it seems sounds of the surroundings around them were given a lot of emphasis and made clear. The costumes were not anything extraordinary, with the kids repeating their clothes almost every day, like sport tracksuit and fairytale costume, portraying the hard times they were in where affording a broad collection of clothes was not easy.

The dialogues used in the movie are minimal and not that greatly elaborate. The actors chosen to do this movie were chosen merely by coincidence and luck. The kids have no acting history, and were merely chosen based on observation by So Yong Kim. Therefore, the naturalness and awkwardness the kids portrayed in the movie can be noticed. So Yong Kim merely based her script and production on luck than on logical series of film-making. This again fulfils the criterion of the use of non-actors in a neorealist film.

The rawness in the acting of the child actors, was clearly seen.

So here we can see how ‘Treeless Mountain’, even though not belonging to the Neo-realism era, still is majorly influenced by the unique style of the movement and as Neo-Neo Realism has just surfaced, it can be expected that many films would make their way through, following this style of film making.


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