WTF ASIA 174: Treeless Mountain (2008)

The grasshoppers are a metaphor.

Available in CanadaFrancethe United States, and perhaps a few other countries. Approximately 90 minutes.

Lee Jin is at school hard at work, writing on a paper about…something. The teacher is telling the class about time and clocks. Her classmate seems to struggle, but she is easily able to answer all of the questions that the teacher asks.

School is out and Jin is collecting some disc-like cards from other students, after winning some game. Is it Pog? I have never played Pog, so I am not sure.

Whatever they were doing, it made Jin late to go home. And, since she walks home, she had to run some of the way home, accidentally running into an adult who was looking at his phone.  As a result, she dropped some of her cards and had to pick them off the ground.

Jin finally arrives at her apartment complex, but she is still too late. Her next-door neighbor, who had been babysitting her younger sister Bin, is furious at Jin for making her late to her hair appointment.

Jin takes Bin home and they hang out for hours until their mother comes home. Jin tells her mother that she got 100% on her homework and her mother…kind of congratulates her, I guess? But she also heard that Jin was, once again, late in picking up Bin from the neighbor, and that kind of overshadows the homework achievement.

They are eating dinner when someone rings the doorbell. The mother tells Jin (who had been kind of slow in eating anyways) to answer the door. Of course, it is someone asking for the mother, so she goes to talk to the person while Jin goes…uh…crawling back to the dinner area. The two grownups go outside to talk. It is not a long talk, but the mother does not want to discuss it with Jin when she comes back.

Jin wakes up in the middle of the night because she…uh…wet the bed. She calls for her mother, who helps wash her up. Jin is mortified, but her mother tries to assure her that it is okay, and promises to keep it a secret.

School again. They are learning basic addition and Jin is doing well. And, after school is over, the kids are once again playing…Pog? This time, though, Jin walks home without participating. Jin returns home to see men removing things from the apartment. Her mother tells her to come in and help clean up.

Jin, Bin, and their mother are on a bus to visit their father’s sister. Bin is asleep, but Jin is a little nervous. She asks her mother about her teacher, but her mother said that is already settled. This does not really make her feel better. Her mother asks if she is not excited to visited her Big Aunt, and tells her that it will be fun. Not to spoil the movie, but her mother just said at least two lies.

The three of them are off the bus. The mother has to go find Big Aunt, so she tells Jin to watch over Bin and tells Bin to stay put. Well, Jin fails to pay attention to Bin, so Bin goes wandering off to see the fish on sale. Eventually, her mother finds her and brings back to Jin, scolding them both for disobeying her.

Big Aunt arrives and…is sort of nice to Jin. Jin was very young the last time that she saw her Big Aunt, so she does not really remember her. Bin had never met her. The mother has to press both Jin and Bin to bow to Big Aunt. The mother picks up Bin and gives her to Big Aunt to hold, which I am sure Bin appreciates. Big Aunt asks whether the mother has heard from that bastard. The mother does not answer.

They go to Big Aunt’s home and she serves some food. Jin doesn’t start until Big Aunt asks her what is wrong. Big Aunt admits that it is not as good as the city food, but the mother insists that the kids are hesitant merely because they ate some junk food on the bus. She tells Big Aunt that the girls will eat anything, so it won’t be hard for her. Wait…what won’t be hard? Cooking meals?

Finally, the mother tells the girls that she is going to look for their father and has to leave the girls with Big Aunt for…a little bit. Of course, Jin says that wants to go with her mother. Bin is silent. Their mother says that this what is best for the two of them. She hands them a piggy bank and tells them that Big Aunt will give each of them a coin whenever they obey her. They should put the coins in the piggy bank and mother will return once the piggy bank is full. There are already a couple coins in there, so this should be easy.

The mother leaves the next morning. Jin cannot even go outside to bid her a final goodbye, staying inside the house as her mother talks to Big Aunt and Bin. But once the mother is gone, Jin goes bursting out the front gate, running after her. And Bin runs after Jin.

Jin gets lost a few times but, with the help of Bin, is able to see their mother get on a bus. They shout for her, but she does not seem to notice. Perhaps she just cannot bring herself to turn around, but it is of no matter.

The two go back to Big Aunt’s house. It is unclear whether they get scolded for running off. Bin takes out a bunch of plastic toys and asks Jin to play, but Jin prefers to lie on the floor. She seems to be taking this a lot worse than Bin.

Dinner time. Once again, Jin is not eating, even after Big Aunt notices. Well, Big Aunt says that Jin can go ahead and starve herself.

Jin wet the bed again. I am not sure if she tried to pin it on Bin, but Big Aunt seems to think that Bin did it regardless. And Big Aunt is less sympathetic towards Bin (or discreet) than their mother had been towards Jin. When Bin denies wetting the bed, Big Aunt threatens to send her to her grandparents’ farm if she keeps being annoying.

They go outside and Big Aunt gives Bin a bowl, telling her to…go beg for salt from the neighbors? Jin offers to go instead, but only after Big Aunt has closed the gate behind Bin. Big Aunt says that Jin has work to do, and has her wash the laundry.

Jin goes outside at the first opportunity and calls for her sister. She finds Bin in the yard of a neighbor’s house. She is playing with a boy named Hyun, who looks to be closer to Jin’s age and probably has Down Syndrome. Hyun’s mother comes out and invites both girls inside for snacks.

Hyun’s mother notes that she has not seen them before, so Jin tells them that they are visiting their aunt while their mother went to take care of business. She does not push further, instead telling Hyun to share his stickers with his new friends. Things seem all nice and comforting here, but Jin says that they have to go, and takes Bin with her. Hyun’s mother pours a bunch of salt into the bowl and bids them farewell.

Jin is sitting on the little hill of rocks where she had last seen her mother get on the bus. The titular treeless mountain. Bin comes up holding some leafless branch of a tree…or a small leafless tree. Jin says that it is dead, but Bin insists that it is not. So Jin decides that they should plant it on the hill of rocks. Jin sees a bus arrive, but her mother does not come out. Bin reminds Jin that their mother had promised to return when the piggy bank was full.

Jin, Bin, and Big Aunt go walk through the busy market to where a woman is working. Big Aunt tells the woman that her son, Minoo, had thrown a rock at Bin’s face. Well, the subtitles say that she refers to Jin as “my kid,” but I cannot say if that is a mistranslation or a sign that Big Aunt is stretching the truth. Anyways, she demands money for medicine, as well as an apology. Minoo’s mother, of course, denies that he would ever do that, then claims that it was no big deal, and gives Big Aunt a wad of cash only after Big Aunt threatens to throw a rock at Minoo. Still, she calls Big Aunt a weirdo instead of apologizing.

The three walk through the street for a while until Big Aunt tells Jin to take Bin home. Jin asks about Bin’s medicine, and Big Aunt says that it is just a scratch and Bin will be fine.


The next day. As Bin plays with a grasshopper, Jin piles a bunch of empty alcohol bottles against the wall. Big Aunt tells her that she will get her allowance after she is done with her chores. Later, Bin helps Jin wipes the floors, as Big Aunt finally notices (with disgust) that she had her nails painted. It was their mother who painted them before dropping them off here days ago. Jin asks whether mother had contacted Big Aunt. Nope.

I guess that the chores were done well enough and Jin actually ate properly enough during lunch that Big Aunt gave them some coins for the piggy bank.

At some point, Bin accuses Jin of stealing her…card. Is that an oversized Pog disc? Anyways, it is unclear whether Bin is telling the truth or not, but Big Aunt has Jin stand in the yard with her hands over her head. She scolds Jin for making Bin cry, but it is Jin who is crying. It lasts only a few seconds, as Big Aunt tells them to go play. But Jin is too upset to go. Eventually, Jin goes outside. Bin accompanies her, but Jin tries to push her away.

Oh dear, that is a closeup of a grasshopper getting skewered. Is it a real grasshopper or some kind of puppet or CGI…probably not CGI. Probably real. ANYWAYS…

Minoo puts three grasshoppers on a stick and cooks them over a fire. Bin asks if they are in pain and he responds that they are already dead…not mentioning that he killed them. He gives her some cooked grasshoppers to eat. I guess that that is one way to apologize for throwing a rock at her head.

Bin goes to Jin with the good news. Bin says that the grasshoppers are yummy, and tries to put one in Jin’s mouth. Jin thinks it is gross and resists. Oh well…more for Bin. Jin starts to change her tune when she sees Minoo selling grasshoppers to other boys. Gross as cooked grasshoppers may be, there is a market for them.

Speaking of the market, Big Aunt goes shopping for…stuff. Jin and Bin ask for cake and Big Aunt shuts them down. They go to eat…well, Big Aunt goes to have a meal and I guess an alcoholic beverage while Bin and Jin have to wait until they get home to eat. Her friend asks about the girls and Big Aunt says that she is just looking after them. When she asks whether she should get them something to eat, Big Aunt says that she doesn’t want to waste her money; they’ll eat at home. Her friend gives her a look, but says nothing.

Well, Big Aunt passes out at home, so Jin tries to look through the kitchen for something to make. She finds rice. Cooked rice? Rice to cook? Rice that they try to eat uncooked? Unclear. Next scene.

Jin and Bin go grasshopper hunting. They catch a few and put them on a stick and…oh dear…did the movie have to show the cooking so close up?

The two approach a group of older boys and offer to sell them grasshoppers. Easy money for the piggy bank. I am pretty sure that their mother was referring only to coins that Big Aunt gave them, but the girls seem to think that that counts. And then they sing the grasshopper song. Okay…

This film was released a few months before A Brand New Life. Similarly to A Brand New Life, it was directed by a woman who was born in South Korea in the 1960s, but left for another country as a child. In this case, though, So Yong Kim moved to Los Angeles when she was 12 to live with her mother. Both films are rather unsentimental and deal with girls who get suddenly left by their parents in unfamiliar circumstances. I am unsure whether the two films were compared to each other or whether one fared better than the other one. It does appear, though, that neither girl in this movie got a lot of subsequent acting roles the way that Kim Sae-ron did, though it could be that their acting was less showy. Or it could be that their parents did not want that life for them. Or whatever. Few of the other actors were in much else. Big Aunt has been in a grand total of three other projects.

The story seems to have a lot of loosely connected scenes, sometimes bridged by random shots of the neighborhood, to pad the movie to around ninety minutes. That may make it seem like there is no plot. But a lot happens, at least to our two young protagonists.

There was a routine. Mother makes breakfast. Mother leaves. Bin goes to the neighbor. Jin goes to school. Jin returns home and looks after Bin. Mother returns. Mother makes dinner. Everyone sleeps until morning. The repetition early on establishes that routine. Was it happy? Unsure. Jin did well in school, so that was something. But how long could this routine last? Was it sustainable?

Routine gives way to uncertainty and unanswered questions. Why did their mother go looking for their father? It is unclear how long he had been gone or what role he had played in their lives, but it is clear that something broke. And, at this point, his absence has been deemed unacceptable. Perhaps Jin had sensed that something was wrong, which is why she wet the bed in the first place. We have to assume that Mother did not want to abandon her daughters. We have to. But she had no choice.

Mother’s decision to go looking for her husband upends everything. Obviously, she pulled Jin out of school, taking her away from her friends, her surroundings and, most importantly, her. It is clear that Big Aunt is a stranger to the girls. And the routine? Forget about it. How much did their mother know about Big Aunt’s situation? How much time did she spend thinking about what to do with her daughters before deciding to send them to her sister-in-law?

Big Aunt is not a bad person…not really, but she is far from prepared to take care of two little kids. She has her own problems. We are not sure what they are, but it appears that she closed her business not too long ago for whatever reason. It is unclear if she has income. If she ever had a family of her own, they are out of the picture. So, now she drinks in the middle of the day. She is willing to take care of Jin and Bin for however long, not necessarily out of the goodness of her own heart, but perhaps due to an obligation to make up for her complete jerk of a deadbeat brother. Still, even that sense of familial obligation cannot last when she her own life seems to be slowly deteriorating.

I cannot say whether this movie took into account the Global Financial Crisis at the time, given that it had been being made at that very time, but I would not be too surprised if it did. It does seem like everyone is struggling. That Bin often wears a princess-ish dress may stand in bitterly ironic contrast to everyone’s circumstances, but the frequency of her her wearing it may imply that she does not have much else to wear.

Big Aunt may try to put up a front for the kids, but her unreadiness and unwillingness to fully take them on as a responsibility shows. First off, Jin does not go to school at all. Perhaps this would not be so bad for a day or even a week, but she is just left to wander around outside when she is not doing chores. Big Aunt is fine with making meals for them when she is not drunk, but will spend as little money on their well-being as possible. If she can make some money from them, though, then that is something. Her unpredictability means that any sense of routine can be scrapped at a moment’s notice. Bin may be able to go with lack of flow for the most part, but an already upset Jin has serious problems adjusting.

Adults in general can be hard to pin down. A lot of them seem to treat kids as a burden, and will yell at them or lie to them for whatever reason. There are exceptions, of course. Jin’s teacher seems reliable enough, though that is her job. Hyoon’s mother seems to be grateful to have anyone play with her son, but she does seem to genuinely treat her son with love and affection as well. Mother…really tries, she does. They are not the only good adults, but they are few and far in between. Father is…gone. Big Aunt is…sigh…Minoo’s mother is…well, is it any surprise that her kid would throw rocks at little girls? Heck, one of the first adults whom we see is the one who yells at Jin for not looking where she was going and running into him, when he was looking at his phone will walking into her. They not necessarily bad people, but it seems that their best is not good enough. So, this is the world that they live in. And without the semblance of normalcy, without something to anchor them, they will just be lost to the winds.

It is not too surprising that Jin and Bin cling hard to the piggy bank deal. Sure, they may be of the age where they can accept any ludicrous lie as truth if it comes from someone whom they trust, but this is also their only connection to their mother. She wouldn’t lie to them. And even if she would, they have to believe this. So, whether or not they truly believe it, they believe that they believe it. And even if they do not necessarily believe that they believe it, then they have to tell each other that they believe it, just to keep that thought alive. A little escapist make believe to stay sane. That has to be enough. Bin’s princess dress may denote a childish fantasy, but it may be all that she has to keep her going.

At the same time, they grow impatient. It appears that this deal relies too much upon their Big Aunt paying them to be obedient, which she does only sometimes. So, they have to make up the difference by uh…killing grasshoppers and selling their charred remains to older boys…yeah…but, they managed to convince themselves that this was still part of the arrangement and that their mother would still come to get them when the piggy bank was full. Perhaps that is a commentary on how people are willing to alter the framework of a lie in order to keep believing it when the original lie does not quite pan out the way that they had hoped. And the viewer is just waiting to find out whether they will lose hope or whether the piggy bank deal will actually work out.

If my description of the movie makes it seem unsympathetically cruel, well…maybe. There is a quiet, laid-back tone that can seem at odds with what is going on on screen. There are also, as said before, short sequences where it seems like nothing is going on and they seem to be treated the same as any other scene. Much of the questions posed above are due to the audience not getting the full picture of what happened either overall or just a few moments earlier, so all we can do is observe how people act without being able to judge whether they are justified in their actions or attitude. And, also, all of those poor grasshoppers.

At the same time, there is a sense of admiration for the resiliency of children in the face of sudden uncertainty. Sure, that resiliency is based primarily on false hope that they themselves have to adjust to fit their needs, but they are still able to function, which not everyone can do here, apparently. The movie does not seem to try to garner sympathy. Still, even for a hope based on a lie, it does not seem to descend into cynicism either. This is quite a contrast to this Japanese movie that I saw a few weeks ago called Sunk Into The Womb, which…yikes is all that I will say about that one. Comparatively speaking, this is an easy film, provided that you can stomach some not-so-nice scenes with grasshoppers.

For such a slow film, it is also rather short. That might make it seem like a nothing movie. But that is not entirely so. It shows children trying to find something to hold when life keeps dislodging them, about keeping their mind on something, even if it is a fantasy. And that is something. And that something makes for a good film.

Treeless 34

WTF ASIA 175: Zoo (India: 2018, approx. 94 minutes)

No Wikipedia

Available in Australia, Canadathe United Kingdomthe United States, and perhaps a few other countries.

WTF ASIA 176: Komola Rocket (Bangladesh: 2018, approx. 95 minutes)


Available in Australia, Canadathe United Kingdomthe United States, and perhaps a few other countries.