A powerfully poetic and lyrical tale on the calm resilience of children and sibling ties. When their mother leaves in order to find their estranged father, seven-year-old Jin and her younger sister, Bin, are left to live with their Big Aunt for the summer. With only a small piggy bank and their mother’s promise to return when it is full, the two young girls are forced to acclimate to changes in their family life. Counting the days, and the coins, the two bright-eyed young girls eagerly anticipate their mother’s homecoming. But when the bank fills up, and with their mother still not back, Big Aunt decides that she can no longer tend to the children. Taken to live on their grandparents’ farm, it is here that Jin comes to learn the importance of family bonds and self-reliance in this beautiful, meditative, and thought-provoking second feature from So Yong Kim, the acclaimed director of In Between Days. (Amazon.com)
Sep. 15, 2009
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Treeless Mountain: a metaphor for modern Korea
9th-12th grade English teacher
Oakland Catholic High School
The movie Treeless Mountain centers around two young girls who experience the trauma of Korea’s industrialization and its effect on the family. The movie is gently and quietly told. I would not hesitate to show it in a high school or middle school classroom in a Catholic school.
What I would want to know, if I were considering it for the classroom:
There is no explicit violence, except for some scenes involving kids skewering live crickets and cooking them over a grill to eat for snacks. There are scenes involving alcohol abuse, including a depiction of many empty glass bottles (though they are not obviously alcohol bottles to American viewers) in the aunt’s apartment, and a scene where the girls’ aunt is drinking shots at a bar, while the girls quietly wait for her. In a scene the next morning, the aunt is hungover and the girls are hungry. Still, in my opinion, the film is appropriate for all ages.
What the film is about:
In the film, the opening scenes show two young girls, ages maybe seven and four, who live with their mother in a big city, presumably Seoul. The mother seems frazzled by the pressure of caring for two young children on her own. The older daughter loves school and has an astonishing degree of independence and responsibility. In one scene, we see her walking a long way home from school and stopping at a neighbor’s apartment to pick up her little sister.
Shortly thereafter the mother takes the two girls to her ex-husband’s sister, “Big Aunt,” in another city. She tells them that she has to go find their father, and she gives them a plastic piggy bank. She tells them to be good and that she will return when the piggy bank is full.
Things don’t go very well for the girls with the aunt. She is loving at first, but she is ultimately unable to care for them on her own. She often leaves them alone, and they have to scavenge for food. They don’t seem to go to school.
Eventually, the aunt takes the girls to their grandparents’ home in the country. The grandparents are old, poor, and rural. The grandfather objects to the arrival of the children, but they all adapt. The grandmother shows the girls how to do chores, and the children give her their piggy bank and tell her to buy new shoes for herself, because they notice that her shoes have a hole in them.
At the end of the movie, Jin (the older sister) sings a song about climbing a mountain and going down the other side, swimming in a river, and lying in the sun. Bin (the younger sister) echoes her sister’s song.
How to use it in class:
The children are beautiful and sympathetic. They are quiet, obedient, independent, and observant. They seem different from American children their ages, and they are very loving to one another.
It would be interesting to use the film in a unit on culture and child development, just for students to see the behavior of the girls and to compare their childhood to American childhood.
It would also be interesting to use in a unit on migration, to demonstrate the peril of industrialization and the ways that economic development affects families—the broken family, the single mother, the separation of extended family, and the city vs. the country. In this movie, the parent generation has essentially abandoned their parents’ home in the country for work in the city, but then they abandon their children because of work. The grandparents and grandchildren reconnect with one another.
It would also be interesting to read the film in a literature class. The “treeless mountain” is a barren image, and I think it’s a metaphor for the modern family. The girls in one scene take a stick and try to plant it in a pile of dirt, showing their inability to create something fertile without an intact family and home.
Posted By Donna Blair
Preschool & Pre-K teacher
Cardinal Maida Academy, Vandergrift, PA
Although this is movie is not suitable for lower elementary grades, I feel that the 4th through 6th would benefit a great deal from this movie. It is written in subtitles so the students would have to read along with the movie. The movie can be stopped various intervals through-out. The teacher can lead the class using a variety of discussion and writing topics. These girls are very resourceful with the life they have been given. The trials that these two sisters go through is only a glimpse of the truth of how family life might be in South Korea.
Some of the topics you could bring up might include but not be limited to:
Health, Emotional Well Being, Social Studies, Economics, Money Value, Geography, Science, Unconditional Love…
I feel this would be a great movie to get the students exploring different cultures.