Mothers (Dangshinui Bootak)
Korea (2018) Dir. Lee Dong-eun
Where would be without our mothers? We rely on them for food, run to them when hurt or scared, run from them when we are naughty, are quite often take them for granted, and miss them when they are not there. But whilst 50% of the population will never know what it means to be a mother, not everyone in the other 50% knows either…
Hyo-jin (Im Soo-jung) is a 32 year-old widow, still struggling to deal with the death of her husband in car accident three years earlier, which the counselling sessions she has with a graduate psychology student, who also has romantic intentions for Hyo-jin, fail to help. She runs a small private tuition centre but is so unfulfilled with her life she plans on closing down, since her only employee Mi-ran (Lee Sang-Hee) is pregnant and soon to leave.
A sudden phone call from her ex-brother-in-law is about to change Hyo-jin’s life. Jong-Wook (Yoon Chan-Young) the 16 year-old son of Hyo-jin’s husband from his first marriage has been living with his grandmother, but as she now has dementia, she can no longer look after Jong-Wook. Despite advice from her own mother Myung-ja (Oh Mi-Yeon) not to accept, Hyo-jin takes Jong-Wook in and becomes his guardian.
For his second film, Lee Dong-eun adapts his own novel Dangshinui Bootak – My Other Mother. It’s a loaded opus that lives up to the plural of the English title by looking at what it means to be a mother, whether a direct bloodline means as much as non-linear one when defining this complex role.
“Role” may sound like a coarse word to use when discussing everything a mother does but in the context of this story it is accurate, since Hyo-jin assumes the role of mother to Jong-Wook for all intents and purposes. Lee also offers an insight into the Korean view of what being a mother means, suggesting it is title automatically afforded to anyone who acts like one and is to be respected, like how we in the west call male teachers “Sir”.
This musing comes a little later in the film from Jong-Wook’s girlfriend Joo-Mi (Seo Shin-Ae) who is pregnant at just 16 years-old, but instead of keeping the baby, which Jong-Wok wants to, Joo-Mi has found a family who will buy it from her instead. Talking about the bond between child and mother, Joo-Mi asks if Jong-Wook ever calls Hyo-jin “mum”, because she does everything a mother would do for their child.
It’s an interesting point of view but one which dilutes the importance of the term “mother”. Does this mean if a man with kids marries four times, his children call each successive wife “mum? This is not to discount those women – or men – who do raise a child better than their biological parents and are considered a “real” parent, but they usually earn this honour.
Joo-Mi is not the only reason Jong-Wook sneaks out or lies to Hyo-jin about where he is going, he is also trying to trace his real mother, unaware she has also died. Because he is so uncommunicative, it is hard to tell if Jong-Wook is acting out of spite towards Hyo-jin, or sparing her the expense and time of helping him – which she does anyway – or whether he feels it is not her business. It’s hard to support his plight when he mopes around in a permanent state of sullenness, making it more difficult for Hyo-jin to know how to help him.
Not helping matters is Myung-ja constantly berating Hyo-jin for every poor life choice she has ever made, her withering “I told you so” putdowns meaning every conversation they have ends on a sour note. But Myung-ja is less a trope and more another aspect of motherhood, albeit a negative one, in the controlling type who knows what’s best for their child without knowing anything at all, at least giving Hyo-jin a idea of how not to treat Jong-Wook.
Lee’s script not only puts forward many different arguments for how we should view who is or isn’t fit to be deemed a mother, it also avoids many melodramatic clichés in how it depicts the relationship between Hyo-jin and Jong-Wook. It may be testy at times, with the youngster being insular and secretive, and his reluctance in letting Hyo-jin get close to him (and leaving the toilet seat up) but it is thankfully tantrum free, with discussion being calm and resolutions agreed upon without doors being slammed afterwards.
We must also remember this is a steep learning curve for Hyo-jin, who, as an educator, doesn’t resort to books for help but relies on her own mettle, using this as a chance to put someone else first to pull her out of her state of ennui. Whilst she doesn’t have all the answers, we do feel she would be a good mother, if only she had the chance to start earlier, but she is going to make a good go of it now.
Being such a quiet and thoughtful film, the performances are rather understated. Im Soo-jung brings a fragility to Hyo-jin that puts her on the cusp of being a tragic heroine, rarely given the chance to smile but knows she is not ready to give in just yet. Yoon Chan-Young is initially too inexpressive Jong-Wook, but like Hyo-jin he is finding his feet again and later his character is revealed to have more integrity than he lets on. However, both are almost upstaged by the infectious vibrancy of Seo Shin-Ae as the perky yet surprisingly philosophical Joo-Mi.
Mothers is more of an insightful dissertation on motherhood than a conventional drama, with many emotional peaks and troughs but is often too languid for its own good. Not all character motivations are sufficiently explained, though the strong sense of morality driving them is a refreshing change from the self-absorbed seeking redemption. A smart film that offers a lot to think about.