The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America

Like Harmony Korine’s Gummo, Tony Stone’s Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America is the type of film that will polarize critics and audiences, even those sympathetic to independent film. Except for a few positive reviews – most notably by Manohla Dargis in the New York Times and a spirited defense of its originality by Mike Ryan on the indie blog Hammer to Nail – most responses are what you might expect from a narrative film that eschews complexity of characterization, plot, and dialogue in favor of a poetic exploration of visuals, sound, and music. Severed Ways is a Modern Gothic period piece that is shot much more like an experimental film or a very inspired home movie, where the actual story is far less interesting or important than the music soundtrack and the spectacular natural landscapes its two main characters traverse for nearly two hours of screen time.

Like so many narratives by younger film directors today, Severed Ways relies on a rough outline rather than a traditional script (see my recent article on this in the Journal of Screenwriting). Stone is much more concerned with improvising while on location – the weather became a major structuring device – which is one of the decided benefits of low-budget digital cinema. For instance, there’s an incredible shot toward the end of the film where Orn chops a tree frantically, and the sun behind him keeps obliterating his image into a burst of white frames as he rhythmically swings his ax.

The stunning imagery of the film continually trumps story, which is what you might expect from someone who studied with a bunch of experimental filmmakers (Peter Hutton, Peggy Ahwesh, and Adolfas Mekas) at Bard College. In an interview on The House Next Door, Stone defends the power of visual storytelling: “There’s so much to show and explain through the visuals, editing and simple pacing. Most films are spending most of their time figuring out how to frame a conversation. It’s pretty liberating to be free of that restraint.”

Based on Thorfinn Karlsefni’s actual expedition from Greenland to the New World, Severed Ways tells the story of two Vikings – Orn (Tony Stone) and Volnard (Fiore Tedesco) – who become stranded after the rest of their party have been slaughtered by the local tribe of Abenaki, whom the Vikings call “skraelings” in 1007 AD. Orn and Volnard wander off into the interior in hopes of finding others and survival. Along the way, they stumble upon a makeshift church with a huge cross and two monks. Orn attacks and kills one of them, while Volnard spares the other one after running him down. We understand his motivation from a previous flashback involving his sister’s love affair with a Christian.

A relationship develops between Volnard and the remaining monk, which epitomizes the split between paganism and Christianity. The scene of the monk washing Volnard’s feet is an obvious religious reference, but also hints at possible erotic overtones. Whatever the case, their secret meetings will have later ramifications for Orn and Volnard, who are revealed to be contrasting characters. Stone at one point provides a dream of Orn’s wife (Gaby Hoffmann), who castigates him for going on the journey and turning out to be “an embarrassment to the Norse.” She also indicates she’s now married to another man “who actually knows how to service me.” In a utter male fantasy, Orn later gets drugged and raped by a female Abenaki, who at first stalks him from a distance. As might be expected, the specter of death hovers over the remainder of the film.

Plot, however, is really beside the point in Severed Ways. The few subtitles are too fast to read, and the minimal dialogue, when understood, appears very stilted (especially when it employs contemporary idioms delivered in highly mannered Old Norse). The huge red chapter headings that are interspersed throughout add an odd sense of gravity, even though they are more or less extraneous or blatantly obvious in terms of the actual story. In lesser hands, Severed Ways might seem laughable – and judging from responses on the Internet, many people consider the film to be just that – but Stone’s insistence on the connection between the Vikings and black metal provides an interesting revisionist spin on the history of this country.

The scene of the two Vikings burning down the church with fiery torches at night, has contemporary parallels to the black metal subculture in Norway, which is reinforced through Stone’s inclusion of soundtrack music by Burzum (Varg Vikernes). A notorious figure in black metal subculture, Vikernes was convicted of murder and setting fires to churches, and spent time in prison for these crimes. In this regard, Severed Ways recalls Banks Violette’s haunting multi-media sculptural installation of a burned-out church, fabricated in salt, at the Whitney Museum in 2005. It featured black metal music by Snorre W. Ruch, who was also associated with Vikernes.

I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Stone made films as a teenager and played as a child in the main locations for the film (which was shot in Vermont, but also apparently in Newfoundland and Maine). With Severed Ways, Stone seemed able to tap into his own childhood and teenage filmmaking as a source of inspiration. He told an interviewer: “I’ve said this a bunch, but as a kid we used to run around, pretend to kill each other, make forts, and build fires, and not much was changed. This is an extension of that cranked up and documented.”

There’s a shot roughly twenty minutes into the film where Orn defecates in closeup, and then wipes himself with leaves from nearby branches – a scene that appears to have grossed out many viewers. Back in college when I saw my first Andy Warhol films, I remember being surprised when Paul America suddenly took a pee in the bathroom scene of My Hustler (1965), and Louis Waldon literally urinated on screen in Lonesome Cowboys (1968). I realized I hadn’t seen that in a film before. In showing the primitive conditions of the early Norse, Stone’s inclusion of such material makes sense. Have folks never gone camping? If moviegoers are really so shocked and disgusted by this, then Stone’s deliberate in-your-face attitude might provide a much-needed corrective.

Throughout Severed Ways, Stone emphasizes the sheer physicality of early exploration. The Vikings chop down trees, build shelters, spear fish in the creek, slaughter and eviscerate chickens, make fires, and seem to walk endlessly through thick brush and forests. Stone’s approach is a lot like that of Lance Hammer in Ballast. He’s less interested in a dialogue-driven film than in how we actually experience the characters. He commented: “But I think you can read a lot into people by their physicality, how they walk, chop. I think it’s more accurate and fairer to the characters. I think it’s far more interesting to decipher characters by actions than words that conveniently tell you who these people are immediately and give you their backstory within five minutes of watching a movie. That’s not how life works.” One memorable shot shows Orn headbanging to black metal while chopping a tree – a visual joke involving the chapter heading titled “camp,” as well as a playful joke about the relationship between diegetic and non-diegetic sound in film.

Just as Warhol was apt to point his camera at something other than the main action, that’s equally true of Stone. We get the closeup of Orn previously mentioned or a plant or grass against the sky, but some important narrative action might be filmed so closely with a shaky mobile camera or in such an extreme wide shot tableau that it’s rendered less legible on a narrative level. One crucial scene involving Volnard resorts to synecdoche. Yet what Stone does choose to focus upon always turns out to be visually fascinating.

Like the very best outsider art, there’s an obsessive quality to Severed Ways – an intensity and insistence to Stone’s eccentric vision that shines through nearly every frame. The film exudes a sense of mad conviction, and, to its credit, Severed Ways is never really predictable. There’s a love of nature, a sense of child-like wonder at the natural world depicted here – a sense of paradise about to be lost as a result of the “discovery” of America by the Norse. On Columbus Day, I happened to pass a protest on campus by a small group of American Indians, who drummed and chanted. One held a sign that read, “The only thing that Columbus discovered was that he was lost.” The same could be said of these Vikings.

While Severed Ways might be much too weird for most mainstream viewers, I’m nevertheless grateful to Magnolia Home Entertainment for releasing this unusual film on DVD. Compared to most of the formulaic movies playing at the local multiplex, I’ll take weird any day.

Posted 16 October, 2009

The Journal of Screenwriting

I recently returned from the Re-thinking the Screenplay Conference (September 9–12) in Helsinki, Finland. Masterfully organized by Kirsi Rinne of the University of Art and Design, the international conference brought together over a hundred scholars from five continents, and provided a unique opportunity to discuss various aspects of the screenplay and screenwriting in general. I gave a paper on the collaboration between Kelly Reichardt and writer Jon Raymond in Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), and chaired a session of excellent presentations by Paul Wells, Jill Nelmes, Erik Knudsen, and Claus Tieber from Vienna. There were many terrific papers and panels, as well as a spirited keynote address by Ian Macdonald, who assessed the pressing research issues within the field at this time.

An added bonus of the conference was the debut of the inaugural issue of The Journal of Screenwriting, a new peer-reviewed academic journal devoted entirely to screenwriting. The first issue was co-edited by editor Jill Nelmes and Ian Macdonald, who organized the first Re-thinking the Screenplay Conference last year in Leeds, England. In order to publicize the journal, its publisher Intellect has put the first issue free online, so you have an opportunity to read the various articles, including my piece on alternative approaches to the written screenplay, entitled “No Room for the fun stuff: the question of the screenplay in American indie cinema.” In it, I discuss such filmmakers as Maya Deren, John Cassavetes, Jonas Mekas, Ron Rice, Kent Mackenzie, Andy Warhol, William Greaves, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, Gus Van Sant, Chris Smith, Lance Hammer, Aaron Katz, and Ronnie Bronstein.

You can read the entire issue of The Journal of Screenwriting, including a PDF of my article (which begins on page 175) here:

http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-issue,id=1717/

There is also a call for new articles for the next issue of the journal:

http://www.ufva.org/content.php?type_id=1&article_id=268

I will be in NYC on Saturday, September 26 for a special screening of the films of Madeleine Gekiere at Anthology Film Archives. I’ve been invited to have a public conversation with her afterwards. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her wildly imaginative, playful, and now somewhat forgotten avant-garde films from the 1970s and 1980s at 8 PM. Thanks to Andy Lampert for arranging this special and important event. Here’s a link:

http://www.anthologyfilmarchives.org/schedule/search/film/?id=9443

Posted 20 September, 2009

Goodbye Solo

The location of Ramin Bahrani’s third feature Goodbye Solo (2009) has shifted from New York City – the setting for his first two films Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2008) – to his home town of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. While the film clearly references Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry (1997), it actually reminds me of Robinson Devor’s Police Beat (2005), which was set in Seattle and co-written with the African writer Charles Mudede. In a similar vein, Goodbye Solo is about a clash of cultures, as a very outgoing Senegalese cab driver named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) – like Z, the Senegalese bicycle cop in Devor’s film – attempts to navigate unfamiliar personal terrain in trying to adapt to the mores of a new country.

In making a distinctly regional film, Bahrani shows us not only the downtown dominated by César Pelli’s famous skyscraper (which looks gorgeous at night), but Winston-Salem’s more seamy underside. In other words, we see the city from the perspective of an immigrant, which was also true of Man Push Cart. Shot in a continuous take, the opening scene of Goodbye Solo provides the film’s setup. One’s of Solo’s passengers, a cranky old white Southerner named William (Red West), wants Solo to drop him off on Blowing Mountain two hours away on a specific date. For his trouble, William offers to pay him a thousand dollars – no questions asked. But Solo is inquisitive by nature. As he tries to joke with William, the man’s true intentions suddenly dawn on him.

Buried underneath the story of these two contrasting characters, lies a kind of film noir mystery with a ticking clock, in which Solo gets thrust into the role of an unlikely detective. Solo tries to befriend the hard-nosed William. He badgers William with myriad questions and invades his privacy in ways that only a naïve outsider might be bold enough to attempt. Solo invites William home after a night of drinking, and later turns up to crash at his motel room. The cab driver gets information about him through a bartender friend, checks William’s medication at the pharmacy, and rummages through his belongings in an attempt to unravel the secret that lurks behind the man’s desperate action.

Whereas Solo is warm, open and buoyantly optimistic despite every reason not to be, William is cold, closed, and an utter pessimist. He continually demands that Solo stay out of his life, even as the two develop some type of relationship or accommodation. Just as Z in Police Beat can’t understand the behavior of Rachel, the woman with whom he’s infatuated, Solo is likewise baffled by William’s actions. Z also cannot understand why the prostitute, Mary, would give up her kid to social services rather than to family. Solo criticizes the fact that families don’t stay together in America. Solo explains to William that in Senegal your family will always provide for you. Even if you don’t have teeth, he tells him, people will feed you the food. William replies coldly, “Why aren’t you there now?”

Solo learns that William at one time drove a Harley, has a tattoo, and has returned to town after thirty years. Solo also knows that he loves movies, which is where he takes him on the night when William proposes the deal. Solo’s preoccupation with William becomes an obsessive fixation, especially as the date draws nearer. Solo’s concerns about William overshadow those in his own life, which appears to be falling apart. Solo separates from his Mexican wife Quiera (Carmen Leyva) and stepdaughter Alex (Diana Franco Galindo), even though Quiera’s due to have his baby. He also dreams of being a flight attendant, which is part of the conflict with Quiera, along with the fact that he hangs out with friends and hasn’t fixed up the taxi that sits idly outside their house.

For Solo, William represents the mystery of American culture, where family roots have been severed and individualism has replaced a sense of community. Indeed, Solo’s relentless pursuit of William becomes a form of projection – a way to avoid his own problems by trying to solve those of someone else. For all his talk about family values, Solo seems less troubled by the fact that his own family is actually splitting apart. Solo’s multicultural marriage represents a mini-drama within the larger one he’s facing in being an African immigrant trying to assimilate into a southern American city.

At William’s motel, Solo confesses to William that he misses his wife and Alex. Solo manages to keep in touch with Alex once she gets a cell phone. He marvels when she takes his picture in front of a hot dog place and later sends it to him via his cell phone. Neither Solo nor William can fathom how such a thing is possible. The screenplay, co-written by Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi (who also co-wrote Chop Shop), is extremely subtle and deceptively complex. It is only very late in the film that we come to understand the parallels between these two men, and why Solo cares so deeply about what happens to William.

Bahrani’s direction in Goodbye Solo is remarkably self-assured. He’s attuned to the faces of performers – basically nonprofessionals and a character actor (West) thrust into a major role. Red West’s owl-like features – mussed hair, overly baggy inset eyes, and wrinkled countenance – serve as a roadmap of his past life. Bahrani’s camera holds on the expression of his actors just long enough to convey the depth of their emotions. In a climactic scene, Bahrani uses a series of reaction shots between William and Solo who simply stare at each other – he smartly understands that words would be extraneous here. Many directors have made impressive debut features, only to begin a downward slide in subsequent works, but the 34-year-old Bahrani appears to be getting better and better with each film.

In Goodbye Solo, Bahrani’s visual style seems almost effortless. On Blowing Mountain, the sound of wind intensifies to a roar. Along with Solo, we too feel as if we’re standing on a mountain top, overlooking a breathtaking landscape shrouded in mist, which gave me a sense of vertigo. The image conjures up the famous German Romantic painting by Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.” Bahrani’s allusion is richly evocative – personally, politically, philosophically, and metaphorically – as Solo ponders the events that have transpired, as well as his own fate, within the broader context of the natural world.

Posted 5 August, 2009

River of Grass

Since collaborating with writer Jon Raymond, Kelly Reichardt has hit her stride with two remarkable features, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) – the latter which I consider the top indie film of last year (click here for the top-ten list). Given Reichardt’s new-found prominence, I recently took another look at her earlier and less well-known River of Grass (1995). Set in the rundown area between Miami and the Everglades, Reichardt’s regionally inflected debut feature is a feminist riff on a number of genres – the crime film, the road movie, and the love story – which she seems to subvert at nearly every turn.

River of Grass begins with a postcard of a hospital and family photos. In voiceover, the protagonist, Cozy (Lisa Bowman), describes biographical details about herself, including the fact that her mother deserted the family when she was ten and that her father (who named her after the musician Cozy Cole) claims the mother ran away and joined the circus. Cozy comments, “I like to think of her there in a sequin cape, flying through the air without a single net to catch her fall.” She informs us she married a guy named Bobby who wrote her poems in high school – someone Cozy hoped she would come to love.

Cozy describes how the couple bought a house where “the previous owner had murdered her husband and buried him inside the shower wall.” Over an image of a bloodied woman holding a clever, Cozy continues, “I’ve often thought about this woman and wondered what made her act so violently. I guess it wasn’t any one big thing, but a lot of little things that just grew deeper and deeper under her skin.” As Cozy speaks, we see an image of her, from the waist up, lying naked in the bath tub, with her hair submerged, giving her the appearance of a mannequin.

Reichardt uses parallel editing to establish her three main characters. Now married with young kids, with whom she feels little attachment, the thirtyish Cozy is a bored and dissatisfied housewife. She wonders whether anyone else could be as lonely as her. Such a person, it turns out, happens to be living in the next county – a deadbeat loser named Lee Ray Harold (Larry Fessenden), who, even though he’s twenty-nine, still lives at home with his mother and grandmother until he gets booted out. Lee’s friend, Doug, finds a gun on the road and gives it to him to sell. By coincidence, the pistol turns out to belong to Cozy’s father, Jimmy Ryder (Dick Russell), a veteran crime scene detective, who gets suspended temporarily for losing it. He’s also an avid jazz drummer, who gave up playing professionally once his wife became pregnant with Cozy.

Through camera movement and the sounds of Ryder’s extended drumming, Reichardt connects his playing drums to Lee getting a tattoo, Cozy taking a shower, family photos of her, crime books strewn on the floor, a woman Ryder has picked up in a bar, Lee driving with his gun, and Cozy slipping out of the house while her child lies fast asleep on the couch. A shot of Ryder hitting the symbols cuts to a closeup of Lee firing the pistol out the window of his moving car, creating a sound bridge. As Cozy hops across the road after getting something in her shoe, she nearly gets run over by a Lee’s blue Chevy Malibu. At the local tavern, he offers to buy her a drink once Lee realizes she’s the same woman he nearly hit with his vehicle.

The two spend the night drinking and flirting at the bar, bathed in red-filtered light. When Cozy asks Lee where he’s from, he tells her, “I’m kind of in limbo right now.” She responds, “Limbo. That sounds nice.” Cozy eventually starts to leave to head home, but Lee sweet-talks her into going swimming at a “friend’s” pool. The two climb over a wooden backyard fence and Cozy dives into the pool with her clothes on. As Cozy climbs out of the water and positions herself between Lee’s legs, we expect him to kiss her as he leans forward, but, in a sexually-loaded gesture, Lee thrusts the pistol into her hands. It accidentally fires when the owner surprises them with a flashlight. Believing they’ve killed a man, Lee convinces Cozy they need to hit the road.

Being on the lam gives new meaning to Cozy’s life, but the expectant romance with Lee never develops. Instead, they lie fully clothed on a bed in a cheap motel room. When Cozy screams at seeing a palmetto bug (large roach) in the bathroom, Lee shoots it, damaging the tiles and bringing the motel owner, who demands the rent. Lee and Cozy later break into his mom’s house. As Cozy dances to a 33 rpm record, Lee steals his mother’s record collection, some roast turkey, and a pair of her shoes. As Reichardt’s camera tracks through neighborhoods, Cozy explains in a voiceover: “Lee and I had crossed that straight line that Dad called the law, and I could feel the butterflies in my stomach as I tumbled deeper into a life of crime. After all, murder was thicker than marriage, and Lee and I were now bound by the life we took.” Lee, however, returns to the crime scene and finds that the owner is very much alive, but he chooses not to tell Cozy.

Failing to sell the records, Lee attempts to go on a crime spree, but he merely takes someone’s clean clothes from a Laundromat, and gets punched in the face while stealing groceries at a convenience store. Meanwhile, Ryder’s fellow detective connects the bullet fired at the swimming pool with the missing gun. Back at the motel, the two get stoned, as the initial excitement gives way to boredom. In voiceover, Cozy comments on the circularity of her life, “It’s funny how a person could leave everything she knew behind, but still wind up in the same place.”

Without money to pay for the motel room, Lee and Cozy set out on a road journey, but it comes to an abrupt halt when they don’t have a quarter to pay the highway toll. While waiting for the trooper to run a check on them, they physically struggle over the whereabouts of the gun, forcing Lee to confess to Cozy that they haven’t killed anyone. Lee’s revelation hits Cozy hard, causing her to question her sense of reality and personal identity. She comments: “Suddenly I wasn’t sure of anything. I wasn’t on the lam after all. I wasn’t laying low or ducking cops, and if I was no one cared. We hadn’t killed anybody. I couldn’t even be sure we had really killed the palmetto bug back at the motel room. So, if we weren’t killers, we weren’t anything.”

In River of Grass, grim fate turns out to be at the heart of Reichardt’s characterization. Perhaps because the film plays with genre expectations, its three main characters represent certain recognizable types: the bored housewife (Cozy), the redneck loser (Lee), and the frustrated detective (Ryder). Cozy’s voiceover narration is essentially an expository device. Through her narration, we learn certain aspects of her character. Her father’s profession, for instance, explains her fascination with the gory details of the woman who murdered her husband in the house that she and her husband, Bobby, bought at auction. Cozy’s commentary about the woman, of course, foreshadows her own actions later on.

Bobby works all the time, while Cozy remains stuck at home. We see her doing cartwheels in her house and spinning around in the yard like a child. That she leaves her kid asleep on the couch to go to a bar provides a telling comment about her character. All of these traits – broken home, a loveless marriage, boredom and loneliness – serve to explain why she might run off with Lee. Cozy views her life as predestined. She speculates: “They say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I found this puzzling and couldn’t stop wondering: Are our lives all mapped out for us? Would my daughter grow up only to wear my shoes? Did my mother’s life create my destiny? Or does one thing just trigger another?” Fate, along with the coincidence of events, serves to replace agency as the motivation for her behavior.

Our first introduction to Lee is a pan to him sleeping naked in front of a large American flag, while his grandmother awakens him. He ridicules his friend Doug for working at a dead-end job, which is why he spends his time driving around, getting stoned, and drinking. Lee scares his grandmother by pointing the gun at her and threatening to shoot her, causing his mother and grandmother to change the locks. At the swimming pool, the anticipated romance between them quickly gets short-circuited. As they hide out in a hotel room afterward, we expect that the crime will create an erotic spark between them, but it has the opposite effect. The two never touch, never kiss, never make love or display any affection for each other. If the gun’s misfire at the swimming pool turns out to be the equivalent of a premature ejaculation, it seems to destroy any hopes of intimacy between the couple.

We know less about Lee than Cozy. In their initial meeting at the bar, he tries to impress Cozy with the new tattoo on his shoulder that says “Mom,” but she points to a photograph of his mother he’s placed on the counter and tells him, “Mom? But we already have Mom here.” During Ryder’s questioning of Lee’s mother and grandmother, an unexpected clue surfaces when his mother reveals that he stole her high heels – something we’ve witnessed ourselves. In the motel room, where Cozy and Lee get stoned by passing around a joint they hold between their toes, Lee talks about his past. He reveals that his mother collects husbands. His real father, who married her twice, committed suicide on their second honeymoon by walking into the ocean. His mother married the mortician who buried him. Lee adds that it was “very creepy living with that guy!”

Cozy’s father, Jimmy Ryder, provides the plot connection between Cozy and Lee. If he hadn’t lost his gun, there would be no story. If Doug didn’t find it on the road and give it to Lee to sell, none of this would have happened either. As a crime detective, Ryder adds an important genre element, as he tracks down leads related to Cozy and Lee and the missing gun, but he never solves the crime he has set in motion. On a personal level, he comes to represent the person who has sacrificed his dreams for marriage, only to be abandoned by his wife along with Cozy. A hard-boiled detective, he drinks in bars, picks up women, and plays drums in his spare time. Even when Lee strides into the Blue Note record shop in an attempt to sell his mother’s records and their paths cross, Ryder fails to make the connection.

All of Reichardt’s characters are defined by the desolate sun-drenched landscape they inhabit. She uses frontal, postcard-like compositions, as well as tracking shots of depressed areas of South Florida – a vast wasteland of Laundromats, bars, record shops, convenience stores, strip malls, single-story dwellings, desolate palm trees, flat terrain, and intersecting highways. Reichardt mixes significant narrative incidents with mundane ones. Cops tell jokes or stories that have no relevance to the plot. Shots of passing freight trains and a jet flying overhead create a striking contrast to the inertia of the aimless main characters, whose life on the run remains largely confined to a motel room.

Ryder’s drum playing provides musical interludes and creates a series of numbered chapters that merely mark the passage of time. And the lone jukebox in the bar he frequents becomes a recurrent motif – a sad image of Americana that we associate with the photographs of Robert Frank in The Americans. River of Grass provides a feminist twist on what essentially are male film genres by deflating the romance associated with crime, violence, the open road, and heterosexual love. As Reichardt remarked in an interview with Todd Haynes – for Cozy, it’s not Lee, but the gun that represents her “real object of desire.”

Posted 22 July, 2009

Treeless Mountain

Set in Korea, So Yong Kim’s American indie Treeless Mountain (2009) tells the story of two young girls – seven-year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and her younger sister Bin (Song Hee Kim) – who are abandoned by their single mother (Soo Ah Lee). It’s initially supposed to be only temporary while she seeks to track down her deadbeat husband Kang, but the kids wind up getting shuffled off to live with Kang’s sister Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim) and then later to their maternal grandparents on a farm.

Stylistically, Treeless Mountain is shot more like a poetic documentary than a fictional film. Kim chooses not to linger too long on the emotional resonances of individual scenes. Instead, the superb hand-held camera work (by Anne Misawa) and editing fracture the narrative into episodic incidents, abruptly cutting from one detail to the next – more like an experimental film. And with nonprofessional child actors, perhaps that’s the best way to capture this type of story.

Jin’s face becomes a barometer of the hurt and pain of what’s happening to the children. When Big Aunt reads a letter from the mother, explaining she can no longer afford to care for the children and they must go to live with their grandparents, the camera focuses on Jin, who in a tearful outburst accuses the aunt of lying and trying to get rid of them. Poor Bin, who wanders through the film in a blue princess dress with fur trim – like a sad refugee from a once-festive party – is merely bewildered. We later realize that her dress represents an attempt to hold onto the memory of her mother, who bought the outfit for her.

The camera usually sticks very close to Jin and Bin, which has the Brakhage-like effect of presenting much of what happens from a child’s perspective. As a result, Treeless Mountain – more than any other recent narrative I can think of – manages to replicate what it’s like to experience the world as a child, not only visually, but with the partial comprehension of unfolding events that marks childhood. Jin unconsciously senses the vulnerability of her situation – the mysterious person who comes to the door and interrupts dinner – causing her anxiety to become manifest by wetting the bed. Her mother is actually very understanding when it occurs. Later, at Big Aunt’s house, Jin lets Bin take the blame when she has another night-time accident. Her aunt is not nearly as compassionate.

Although Big Aunt isn’t outright cruel, she turns out to be a poor parental surrogate. She extorts money from a neighbor over a supposed injury to Bin. Big Aunt eats and drinks at a café, but doesn’t want to spend money on the girls, whom she insists can eat at home. Big Aunt is often too drunk or hung over to feed the two hungry children. Yet when she abandons them at their grandparents, Jin and Bin still instinctively chase after her and wave goodbye frantically. (Bin later tells Jin that she misses not only her mother and father, but Big Aunt as well.)

The dynamic between the two sisters is very much at the heart of the film. When the mother arrives home the first night, she scolds Jin for being late in picking up Bin from the babysitter. Before the mother leaves the girls with Big Aunt, she tells Jin, “Take care of Bin for me. I believe in you, Jin.” It’s no wonder that Jin resents the responsibility of always having to watch over Bin, which is why she lets her little sister wander off by herself, refuses to play with her after their mom leaves, sets her up to take the blame for bedwetting at Big Aunt’s house, tries to ditch her as they walk up a street, and calls her “stupid” when Bin still asks about the mother as they’re on route to live with their grandparents.

To Jin, Bin has become an unwanted appendage, but they only have each other – that is the bond that inextricably ties them together, no matter what. And there are indeed moments of genuine warmth between the sisters. When they sing songs about grasshoppers with great exuberance, they momentarily seem to forget their sad situation. Jin also comforts Bin the one time she cries over their mother, protectively holds her hand as they cross a busy street, and even tutors her with reading at the farm.

The film begins with Jin learning how to tell time at school. But the irresponsible Big Aunt never bothers to re-enroll her in school – leaving the children to wander around the streets of the city. The passage of time becomes a central element in the story. Their mother gives the two girls a large red piggy bank and insists that she’ll return once it’s full of coins. Jin and Bin attempt to make money hawking fried grasshoppers to school kids in order to feed their plastic piggy. After Bin shakes out a coin to buy a sweet bun and gets smaller change, the two realize that they can speed up time by exchanging larger denomination coins for many more smaller ones. From a huge mound of dirt and rubble – the treeless mountain of the title and the image that apparently served as the film’s inspiration – Jin and Bin wait in vain for their mother’s return on the bus.

Once Big Aunt dumps them on their grandparents, she and the grandfather get into a loud argument. The grandpa doesn’t even try to hide it from the girls that they’re not wanted. But the grandma (Boon Tak Park), who has a wonderfully wizened face and wears a blue towel fashioned into a hat, turns out to be totally accepting of Jin and Bin, and the girls return her kindness in their own touching way. The pace of life on the farm feels slower, the tone shifts slightly, the colors become golden, and the film ends with a wide shot of Jin and Bin as they sing and walk through a overgrown field.

Instead of the conventional way of breaking down the story into individual shots, Kim (who studied painting, performance, and video at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) uses individual shots to build her story. She uses wider landscape shots as temporal transitions, but also to comment on events. When Jin and Bin are told by Big Aunt that their mom isn’t returning, dark clouds obscure the sun. Yet Treeless Mountain is infused with such pure poetry that images never feel overtly metaphorical or symbolic, nor does Kim resort to using music to underscore the feelings of her characters.

What’s especially notable about Treeless Mountain is the precision of So Yong Kim’s spare visual style and understated narration. And if the emotional impact of the film feels like a dagger has been thrust into your heart, Kim does it with such skill and artistry that she doesn’t leave any trace of an incision.

Treeless Mountain screened at the 2009 Wisconsin Film Festival. It will be released on DVD in this country on September 15 by Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Posted 18 July, 2009

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