The Competition of Fiction Features of the 24th Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinemas (Festival International des Cinémas d′Asie) screened in international premiere the directorial debut Mothers by Lee Dong-eun. Perhaps hidden from the plain sight, as it does not offer a first handed strong political message, the film has a lot to say. What more, it delivers the ideas without excessive drama.
Hyo-jin (Lim Soo-jung) is 32 and right now is not completely sure what she wants from her life. It is a surprise to everyone around her when she agrees to become a guardian of 16-year old Jong-wook (Yoon Chan-Young), son of her deceased husband. The boy has been raised by his grandmother, now hospitalized with dementia. The moment Jong-wook enters the story, he becomes its center with Hyo-jin providing the point of view, while we watch them coping with the new situation, learning to know each other, understanding their new roles, while the boy still searches for his mother.
The main frame of the story is, quite typically for Korean cinema, a melodrama with Hyo-jin walking in circles looking for a way out, and Jong-wook entering her world, with his path more or less pointed frontwards. Nonetheless, both of them take problems as they come and go in a no unnecessary drama way, as the lion is never so fierce as he is painted. Despite unnecessary re-focusing on one facet too many, risking losing the spectator′s attention or getting him lost, Lee′s film shows interesting points. It would be easy to dismiss Mothers as an easy to digest film. Yet, it is more interesting to look at what lies under the audience-friendly melodrama coat.
As the English title suggests, there is more than one representation of mother (mother figure) in the story. Hyo-jin becomes one by her decision to take care of Jong-wook, as in a way did his grandmother before. There is Hyo-jin′s friend (and colleague) who gives birth to a planned baby and Jong-woon′s friend who becomes pregnant and decides to give up the baby for adoption into a family of her choice. They all enter (or already are) a two-way relation with Jong-woon and become milestones in his coming of age journey. And it is both sides that learn from this relation.
After all the political turmoil in South Korea that has affected the industry, Mothers returns to melodrama as a home base genre but refuses to follow the “traditional” gender roles with a strongly dominant man. It shows the main strength of the male character(s) is being respectful to women and their decisions being it choice of profession, whether or not to date the man, give up a child for adoption or take care of another woman′s child, or “just” provide a pregnant friend with junk food and gummy bears. Being a film by a young filmmaker (male writer & director), Mothers thus adds to the view of Korean cinema history as the history of deconstruction of masculinity, still present in many mainstream films.