Nocturne (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A son, his mother, and her other son

South Korean documentary film “Nocturne” follows the cacophonic life story of a mother and her two very different sons. Because one of these two sons happens to have a serious case of autistic disorder, his younger brother as well as his mother often face considerable difficulties in communicating with him besides dealing with each own personal issues, and it is touching to see how these three main figures of the documentary eventually come together via what have dominated over their life for years.

After the opening scene showing a little special concert held in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2018, the documentary goes back to 10 years ago, and we look into the daily life of Eun Sung-ho, an autistic lad living with his divorced mother Son Min-seo and his younger brother Eun Gun-ki. While he has a considerable musical talent, Sung-ho constantly needs the care and attention from his devoted mother, so she becomes concerned more than before because of the upcoming concert, but, to her frustration, Sung-ho’s autistic mind is often drawn to the world of television and video game whenever he is not playing music.

Once he is prepared well by his mother, Sung-ho does the concert as well as expected, and we get to know more about her endless devotion to him. He is often very difficult to deal with, but she responds to him with enough tactfulness and discipline, and you can clearly see that he is always under control as long as she is around him.

Meanwhile, the documentary also focuses on Gun-ki, who also looks promising as he often plays the piano in their apartment. Although Min-seo does not forget telling her younger son that he can be as good as his older brother, Gun-ki knows too well that his mother is a lot more occupied with his older brother, and his rather sullen attitude clearly conveys to us his longtime resentment about not getting enough attention and affection from her.

Anyway, Gun-ki tries to be a promising musician just like his older brother, but he only comes to see his older brother continuing to rise as an exceptional pianist and clarinet player, while his life keeps going down to his frustration. When the documentary moves forward to several years later, we see him earning his meager living day by day, and he bitterly tells us about a series of unfortunate downturns in his life he went through shortly after quitting his college education due to the tuition problem. With no bright promise in his life, he often looks morose and disaffected, and that certainly affects his relationship with his mother and his older brother.

Meanwhile, Min-seo continues to support and promote Sung-ho as usual, and we cannot help but notice how much she looks older than before. Although her economic situation becomes worse than before, she is still willing to invest everything into Sung-ho’s life and career, and, so far, the result has been fairly rewarding for her thanks to Sung-ho’s significant career advancement.

However, Min-seo is well aware that there may come the day when she cannot be around Sung-ho anymore, and that is why she wants Gun-ki to be closer with Sung-ho, but, not so surprisingly, that turns out to be quite a daunting task. While Gun-ki visits her and Sung-ho for having a dinner with them, he soon comes to clash with not only Sung-ho but also their mother, and that is certainly the most painful human moment in the documentary.

Around that point, the documentary alternates between Gun-ki and Sung-ho as their respective lives continue as before. Gun-ki eventually decides to have some change in his life, so he goes abroad for working as a tour guide, and he subsequently goes through a mandatory military service period. In case of Sung-ho, he does a number of big concerts while improving his musical skills step by step, and his mother is certainly prouder of him than ever.

The documentary stumbles a bit as its three main figures come to gather again because of one sudden incident. It does not delve much into what exactly caused Gun-ki’s sudden hospitalization, but this incident somehow brings back him to his mother, and we soon see how things get better for him as well as his mother and his older brother during following several years. Although he has been pretty skeptical about his mother’s emotional/financial investment into his older brother’s career, Gun-ki is eventually convinced to help his mother and his older brother, and his mother is certainly glad when Gun-ki accompanies Sung-ho during Sung-ho’s concert travel to St. Petersburg.

While it still regards Sung-ho with distant respect as before, the documentary generates some emotional poignancy as observing how much Gun-ki is changed in comparison. Although he often struggles to have his older brother’s affairs under control, he comes to understand and care more about his older brother than before, and there is a genuinely touching moment when he comes to have an unexpected moment of communication with his older brother via their shared musical talent.

On the whole, “Nocturne”, directed by Jeong Kwan-jo, is admirable in the earnest handling of its human subjects, and I also enjoyed the effective utilization of a number of recognizable classic pieces including those well-known nocturnes composed by Frédéric François Chopin. I must point out that it does not go beyond the level of plain TV documentary film, but it has its heart in the right place at least, and I certainly appreciate that.

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