Mothers (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): As they become a family

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South Korean film “Mothers”, which is released as “Your Request” in South Korea, is an intimate character drama about the emotional journey of two different characters who happen to live together by accident. While calmly establishing the emotional distance between them, the movie sensitively depicts how they come closer to each other bit by bit, and then it surprises us with some unexpected plot developments which certainly reflect its English title.

In the beginning, we get to know a bit about Hyo-jin (Im Soo-jung), a 32-year-old woman who has run a small academy for elementary school kids along with her pregnant friend/co-worker Mi-ran (Lee Sang-hee). Summer has just begun, and Hyo-jin has been considering moving her academy to some other place, but she is not so sure about whether she really wants to continue her business. In fact, she frequently seems tired and disinterested, and it is looks like she has not completely recovered from the death of her husband, who died around 2 years ago.

And then there comes an unexpected change into her mundane life. A long time ago, her husband married some woman and then had a son between them, and now her husband’s family asks Hyo-jin to take care of that boy because there is not anyone in the family who can take care of him after his maternal grandmother is sent to a facility for old people due to her senility. Although she only saw Jong-wook (Yoon Chan-yong) a couple of times before and does not know much about this adolescent stepson of hers, Hyo-jin agrees to take him to her home anyway, and that is the beginning of their rather uneasy relationship. While she tries to be as nice as possible, Jong-wook mostly remains sullen and passive except when he reluctantly shows some appreciation to her, and this often frustrates her a lot.

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As Hyo-jin and Jong-wook respectively try to deal with their changed circumstance, the movie slowly lets us get to know more about them via several supporting characters in the story. When Hyo-jin happens to spend some time with her busybody mother, it is apparent that they have not got along well with each other for many years, and we later get a bitter moment when Hyo-jin and her mother come to hurt each other’s feeling more than expected. Although she is mostly occupied with her upcoming delivery, Mi-ran is usually someone to listen to Hyo-jin, and their scenes are the most cheerful part in the film. In addition, Hyo-jin has been close to a psychology graduate student who works in her frequent coffee shop, and he is clearly interested in moving their relationship to the next level, though she has so far been content with being his ‘patient’.

In case of Jong-wook, it turns out that he has a personal matter which he has kept to himself. He wants to find someone who was very important to him during his childhood, and we soon see him searching around in some beach town along with his friend Joo-mi (Seo Shin-ae), a plucky female schoolmate who understands his motive well probably because her status is not so different from his. While she still needs to grow up more as your average teenager girl, Joo-mi turns out to be more matured and thoughtful than him, and that aspect of hers is exemplified well by when she later notifies him of an unexpected news.

The movie could easily slip into sentimental melodrama, but the screenplay by director Lee Dong-eun wisely avoids unnecessary sappiness as constantly providing intimate emotional moments to cherish. For instance, the scene in which Jong-wook eventually comes to meet that person in question is presented with considerable restraint, but what is churning below the surface feels palpable to us nonetheless, and that is why it works as a quiet but dramatic point in the story. I also appreciate how thoughtfully the movie handles the subplot involved with Joo-mi, and I was particularly touched by a small but poignant scene where she sticks to her certain pragmatic decision regardless of whether she actually regrets it or not.

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Like any good character drama films, the movie is supported well by the solid performances from its cast members. Ably holding the center with her nuanced low-key performance, Im Soo-jung, who has been one of the most prominent South Korean actresses since “A Tale of Two Sisters” (2003), subtly conveys her character’s thoughts and feelings while never emphasizing them too much, and young actor Yoon Chan-young holds his own place well as another main part of the story. Thanks to their believable interactions on the screen, we gradually come to sense the tentative relationship development between their characters, and they surely make a lasting impression on us as the camera looks at them from the distance during their last shot.

The supporting performers in the film are also wonderful in their respective roles. While Lee Sang-hee, who previously drew my attention via her breakthrough performance in “Our Love Story” (2016), enlivens her every scene in the movie, Oh Mi-yeon imbues her busybody character with considerable personality, and Han Joo-wan did a good job of balancing her character well between humor and sympathy.

“Mothers” is the second feature film directed by Lee, who previously made “In Between Seasons” (2016). Although I could not get a chance to watch that film when it was released in South Korea two months ago, I heard some good words about it, and, considering his modest but commendable achievement in “Mothers”, I think I should check it out someday. He is a good storyteller in my inconsequential opinion, and it will be interesting to see whatever will come next from him.

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