There’s a delicate little scene between mother and daughter early in “Treeless Mountain.” A young girl, maybe six, wakes up in the night. She’s wet the bed. Her mom comforts her and bathes her. The girl sobs throughout and a glob of snot drips from her nose. Without missing a beat, the mother reaches up and has the girl blow her nose onto her hand. Then she rinses it off in the bathwater and starts to dry her daughter with a towel.
That scene is typical of the quiet and gentle nature of this masterful little movie set in contemporary South Korea. The girl, Jin, and her younger sister Bin are generally a happy pair. Unlike my kids, very unlike my kids, they enjoy their school days so much that they can’t wait for Monday to roll around again. But, they live alone with their mom and there is an air of insecurity about their existence. The bed-wetting is only one of several clues.
This situation is short-lived. The mother feels she can’t provide for two small girls on her own and sets out to find the girls’ father. She leaves the girls in a small town with their aunt, their father’s sister, a woman they’ve never met and who isn’t much glad they are meeting her now. The mother gives the girls a piggy bank and says, “When this is full, I will return.”
Jin and Bin now find themselves fishes out of water in a strange town very different from their home city of Seoul. All the rules have changed and they’re going to have to learn the new ways in order to survive long enough to fill that piggy’s fat belly. Their aunt, a drunk with little time for a six and a three-year-old, has her own rules like “eat what I give you or starve.” The townsfolk have their own rules as well, not to mention wondering why these two girls don’t go to school.
The most important rules that Jin and Bin must master though are those of the local kids. “Treeless Mountain” has a classical, mythological, quality of kids forming a secret society as they try to figure out what makes grown-ups tick. It isn’t a stretch to compare it to such classics as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the great French film “Forbidden Games” where two small children come to grips with WWII by creating a secret cemetery for all the small creatures that have lost their lives.
The centerpiece of “Treeless Mountain” involves grasshoppers, the tastiness of roasted grasshoppers, and the market value of such tasty treats. These scenes, often rendered in extreme close-ups that bind the children intimately with nature, are absolutely magical. They also left me kind of curious as to just what a roasted grasshopper tastes like.
Whether or not Jin and Bin manage to fill that piggy’s belly and what becomes of their mother are things I’ll leave for you to discover. I did find the ending to be just as delicately observed and fitting as that early scene of a mother bathing her daughter. It left me with the feeling that things will turn out just fine for the girls, eventually.
“Treeless Mountain” has not been rated by the MPAA. It is well suited though for viewers of all ages and will be enjoyed by anyone who is charmed by resourceful children trying to make sense of the mysterious world of adults.
The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, January 28 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.