Treeless Mountain


Treeless Mountain

It may be bucolic but there's an underlying tragedy being enacted here.

(2008) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Hee Yeon Kim, Song Hee Kim, Soo Ah Lee, Mi Hyang Kim, Boon Tak Park, Lee Hyun Seo, Ha Min Woo, Lee Byung Yong. Directed by So Yong Kim

The world can be a harsh place. It is particularly rough on children, especially when their parents are not around. Think of how much harder it is when the parents give them up voluntarily.

Seven-year-old Jin (Hee) and her little sister Bin (Song) are sweet, well-adjusted little girls in South Korea. Unfortunately, their mom (Soo), not so much. Ever since her husband left them, she has had a very hard time adjusting. Raising the two girls by herself proves to be too much so she decides to go and reconcile with her husband. She then must leave her daughters with Big Aunt (Mi), her older sister who makes it very clear that this is a temporary arrangement and that she’s not interested in taking care of the kids herself.

It also becomes equally clear soon enough that she’s an alcoholic, which complicates matters. While their mom promises to return by the time that an empty piggy bank is filled with coins that Big Aunt will give them when they do their chores and are good (giving them incentive to be good – the better they are, the sooner Mommy will be home in their minds), they find themselves often bored with few children their age to play with.

They often wait by the bus stop they saw their mom leave from but she never appears. The piggy bank eventully winds up getting full (thnks to some cleverness from Jin who changes some of the bigger coins into several smaller ones to fill up the bank faster). Eventually they get a letter from their mom saying that things haven’t worked out with their dad and that she will be gone much longer than she first thought.

That’s the breaking point for Big Aunt who decides that the children must now be left with their grandparents on their farm in rural Korea. While the farm is not particularly successful and old granddad not wanting to raise a whole new set of kids after having already raised his own, the grandmother (Boon) takes the girls under her wing and teaches them the importance of family while they patiently await a mother who may never return.

This is a movie whose ambitions I admired very much. So Yong Kim has crafted a very quiet movie with not a whole lot of dialogue and a pace that requires a great deal of patience. Those who have it will be rewarded with a story that has its own beauty as well as its own tragic elements. One leaves the movie wondering what on earth will become of these kids and what sort of chance they have in life.

Much of the film centers on the two sisters and fortunately, both are adorable enough to be interesting. I wouldn’t call it a performance so much as the kids being themselves and allowing Ms. So to film them. There are moments that are truly charming…but to be fair, there are also some that are rather boring as well.

I liked the concept of following the children around and trying to get into their heads as they try to make sense of a missing mom. Unfortunately, the movie takes so much time in getting to its very chrming and bittersweet ending that I found my attention wandering. Maybe that makes me a curmudgeon but this felt more like babysitting than film viewing. I guess I’m turning into the grandfather here which is a scary thought in and of itself.

There is plenty to recommend the movie but one must be a little bit on the Zen side to truly enjoy it. It is rewarding, yes but I’m not sure I’d have the patience to sit through it again. It’s very much like a still life painting. There’s a lot going on if you have the patience and perception to look; it’s just that not all of us do.

WHY RENT THIS: A very realistic look at a family fractured by alcohol and neglect. The two young girls are adorable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Long periods of time go on with little story advancement. The director relies overly much on the cuteness value of the leads.

FAMILY VALUES: No violence or sexuality and almost no profanity. The themes are a bit on the mature side though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the cast were amateur actors who had never been in a film before.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with the two little girls two years after the completion of filming; there is also a Q&A with the filmmaker after a screening at the New York Film Forum.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $124,023 on an unreported production budget; the film probably broke even or even made some money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: White Noise 2: The Light

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The Class (Entre les murs)


The Class (Entre les murs)

"I'm not going to tell you again, my name is NOT Mr. Chips!"

(Sony Classics) Francois Begaudeau, Franck Keita, Boubacar Toure, Henriette Kasaruhanda, Eva Paradiso, Laura Baquela, Rachel Regulier, Nassim Amrabt. Directed by Laurent Cantet

Education isn’t what it used to be. Teachers have little control over their students, administrators have little control over their teachers and everybody is pointing fingers at everybody else. How do teachers stand a chance with students, having to compete with iPods, cell phones, video games and the Internet?

Francois Marin (Begaudeau) is a new teacher at a school in the 20th arrondissment of Paris, a multi-ethnic neighborhood. He teaches grammar and literature to what would be the equivalent of high school students. The students are ambivalent at best about the prospects of learning a language they already think they know. What good, they question, is this education going to do them?

A valid point, indeed. Marin is fairly hip as teachers go, treating his students with respect although he is only human; he gets exasperated when they push the limits, as teenagers will do. At times he resorts to the tried and true axiom of “because I said so” when questioned. Still, he’s fairly easy-going and makes a real effort to communicate to his students.

Many of them are the children of immigrants, such as Souleymane (Keita), a troubled young man with a bad temper and Khoumba (Regulier), who believes M. Marin has it in for her. These aren’t always the easiest kids in the world to get to know

Still he does try, and seems to be making a connection when he gets them to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and then assigns them each an essay to write about themselves. In some of the cases, he gets a glimpse of understanding something much deeper although with most it’s just a skim across petty surface likes and dislikes.

However, when two classroom representatives at a teachers meeting blabs to the class that M. Marin said something unflattering about one of the students, tensions threaten to derail the fragile bond that ha been forged among the members of the class.

Director Laurent takes a bold innovative step in disposing of a script for the actors playing the students and instead gets them to improvise, with three cameras covering the classroom and only Begaudeau getting the outline of the action that is meant to occur. This leads to honest, natural performances with the students essentially playing themselves in a classroom setting and reacting as they would to incidents occurring in their own classrooms.

Begaudeau is himself a teacher and wrote the book on which this is ostensibly based. He co-wrote the “script” along with Cantet and Robin Campillo and is the heart and soul of the movie. He is one of those teachers who genuinely want to see his students thrive but is frustrated by their lack of motivation to care about their own futures. He wants to get through to them, but at the same time he’s only human and not only makes mistakes, but does not treat them all equally.

I did have problems with the subplot of the classroom representatives. I grant you I’m not an expert on the French educational system, but it seems to me that having students attending meetings in which confidential information about their fellow students is being discussed is an unlikely scenario at best. Here in the States, that’s the kind of thing that would lead to lawsuits. While there might be classroom representatives at teacher meetings, I can’t imagine that those teachers wouldn’t be aware that anything discussed at those meetings, particularly if it were something the teachers didn’t want getting out, would be blabbed to their fellow students the next day. I mean, these are TEENAGERS for chrissake – passing on inappropriate information is what they do.

Still, this is a marvelous movie that, while it shares a certain pedigree with classroom dramas like To Sir with Love, The Blackboard Jungle, Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, is much more authentic particularly in the way that the students are depicted. We don’t have a Mr. Chips sort here who inspires by reading from Dylan Thomas; instead we have a beleaguered teacher doing the best he can to inspire kids who aren’t looking for inspiration (at least from school). It is also a wake-up call to our global society that the education system needs to be reformed as the needs of the students are changing.

WHY RENT THIS: A realistic look at the challenges facing educators today. Organic, unforced performances mostly by first-time actors or non-actors makes for a natural setting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The whole sub-plot about having two classroom representatives at a meeting in which confidential information about students is being discussed is far-fetched to say the least.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of rough language and a little bit of sexuality, but otherwise suitable for teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first French film to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival since 1987.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is intriguing footage of some of the improvisational sessions that set the tone for filming, as well as the young actors reading essays they’d written about themselves, some of which were incorporated into the final film.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

Winter’s Bone

Note: While I saw this at the Florida Film Festival, it isn’t scheduled for release until June 18th. A full review will be posted then. In the meantime, here is a short mini-review.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) has a tough life in the Missouri Ozarks. Taking care of her two young siblings and her mentally ill mom is taxing enough for a 17-year-old girl but to find out she needs to find her absent meth cooker dad or lose their house (which he used as collateral on his bail bond) with no help from the insular mountain community is almost too much for her to bear. This outstanding performance is matched by veteran character actor John Hawkes turn as her Uncle Teardrop, the wiry man who nobody wants to mess with. This is a moving, harrowing movie that will keep you squirming in your seat. Highly recommended.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Secret of Kells