South Korean film “Madonna”, which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in this May and is now currently being shown at South Korean theaters, is a tough stuff packed with stark power and harrowing emotions. It is often very uncomfortable to watch, but we are gripped by its compelling presentation of sad, gloomy human conditions, and then it strikes us with powerful moments which lead to a small but precious glimmer of life and hope around its quietly moving finale.
The story is mainly told through the viewpoint of Hae-rim (Seo Yeong-hee), a young nurse who has just been employed at a big hospital. As briefly shown during the scene of her shabby residence where she lives alone, she has been struggling with her difficult economic situation, and it is fortunate that she gets a job which may give her more chances for a better life. She is assigned to a special ward reserved for its VIP patients who can afford many expensive services including medical ones, and its luxurious environment feels like a completely different world to her. Patient’s rooms look more like five-star hotel room at times, and we are not surprised to hear later that the patients in this ward pay at least around 2,500 dollar per day.
One of the patients in this ward is the wealthy owner of the hospital, who does not have much time to live in his nearly comatose state. His son Sang-woo (Kim Yeong-min) is determined to keep his father alive by any means necessary just because he will lose his father’s wealth if his father died. Under Sang-woo’s order, his frail father is always revived by doctors whenever it is necessary, and he even received organ transplant surgeries just for lengthening his remaining short life a bit.
When the old man’s body is in the need of a new heart, the hospital happens to receive a possibly ideal donor. A young woman was recently found under a bridge after she was brutalized and then left in unconscious state by someone, and there is no one looking for her. While she does not have much chance for regaining her consciousness, she has been pregnant for months, but that is not much of a concern to Sang-min, who orders Hae-rim to find any family member of this unfortunate woman and gets the sign for the organ donation agreement document as soon as possible.
Starting from a cellular phone and a calling card belonging to the woman, Hae-rim gradually learns more about her as meeting several people who knew her. Before being brought to the hospital, Mi-na (Kwon So-hyeon) worked as a prostitute named ‘Madonna’, and it was just the last chapter of her poor life full of pain and misery. During her school years, she was a lonely girl who did not get along well with her schoolmates, and her only family member was her grandmother, who now becomes too senile to recognize her dear granddaughter while living in a facility for old people. After her school years, Mi-na tried to earn her living while supporting her grandma, but life was not very good to this shy, vulnerable woman. She had to go through very terrible experiences due to some horrible guys she encountered, and her life and spirit kept falling down to the bottom as a consequence while there was no one to help or protect her. Now she is soon going to be exploited and discarded again at the end of her miserable life, and there is a cruel irony in that she is treated a lot better than she ever was in her whole life.
As the pieces of Mi-na’s life story are revealed to us and Hae-rim one by one, the movie also focuses on the growing conflict inside Hae-rim. She has been emotionally numbed and exhausted by her hard life for years, but Mi-na’s story touches something she has kept inside her hardened heart. Maybe she can just go along with the other hospital employees as following their boss’ order, but she finds herself digging more into Mi-na’s life, and she comes to care about her more than before, though that is the last thing to do if she wants to keep her job.
The movie is the second film directed by the director/writer Shin Su-won, who previously made an impressive feature film debut with “Pluto” (2012). That movie showed me horrendous high school kids who only cared about higher test score and better college entrance, and I noticed how chillingly its dark revenge story reflected the cutthroat reality in the South Korean education system. As absorbed into that film during my viewing, I came to recall some of my unpleasant high school memories, and I had no hesitation when I chose it as one of the best South Korean films in 2013.
With her second feature film, Shin proves again that she is a very gifted filmmaker to watch. Indirectly pointing out social matters including class and sexism, her story goes back and forth between present and flashback scenes without any awkwardness, and both of its two storylines are engaging enough to hold our attention with each own dramatic weight. While its main characters are established well along its narrative, the movie also gives considerable attention to its supporting characters, and Sang-woo’s father, who is sometimes conscious of his condition, has a poignant moment when he tries to give his answer through his small wordless gestures during one crucial scene.
The movie depends a lot on its two lead actresses, who ably carry it with their terrific performances. Although her character is mostly presented through flashback scenes, newcomer Kwon So-hyeon gives an unforgettable performance which will be a breakthrough for her burgeoning career. While effectively embodying Mina’s aching vulnerability, she does not stay away from her pitiful character’s troubled side, and her performance is more devastating to watch as her character is approaching to the bottom waiting for her. Kwon also handles well several emotionally grueling scenes in the film, and these difficult scenes never look exploitative or gratuitous under Shin’s thoughtful direction while fully conveying us the pain and horror inside them.
On the opposite, Seo Yeong-hee, who once suffered a lot in “The Chaser” (2008) and “Bedevilled” (2010), complements her co-actress with her restrained but equally interesting performance. The movie is as much about Hae-rim’s emotional journey as Mi-na’s plight, and Seo’s nuanced acting subtly suggests the emotional turmoil inside Hae-rim as she feels closer to a woman she never knew before. Through Mi-na, Hae-rim sees a possible chance for redemption she has never thought about, and there eventually comes a moment when she must make a certain decision for her as well as Mi-na.
In case of supporting performers, Kim Yeong-min is totally loathsome in his dastardly role, Yoo Soon-cheol holds his own small place as a dying man cruelly tormented by his greedy, heartless son, and Byeon Yo-han, who recently appeared in “Socialphobia” (2014), is a young doctor who becomes conflicted about his job. Ko Seo-hee is a frigid nurse who does not mind giving whatever her boss wants, and Park Hyun-young is Mi-na’s former co-worker who cared about Mi-na but regretfully failed to help her.
South Korean independent films, “Madonna” is another wonderful South Korean film to remember in this year. This is not a very pleasant movie to say the least, but it is still a recommendable one worthwhile to watch for its powerful story and excellent performances. Nothing is changed much in its characters’ reality in the end, but the movie touchingly shows the value of human compassion and kindness among the weak at the bottom of the society, and you will agree that Mi-na really deserves her nickname.