First Child (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): As she is cornered into motherhood

South Korean independent film “First Child” often feels like a social horror film. As calmly observing its heroine desperately struggling to balance herself between her career and motherhood, the movie makes some sharp points on how harsh and insensitive the South Korean society can be to many women like her, and it is often disheartening to watch her gradually pushed and cornered toward a role imposed upon her right from her pregnancy.

During its early part, the movie shows us how its heroine attempts to resume her career after raising her one-year-old daughter during last several months. While she has been absent for more than one year, Jeong-ah (Park Ha-sun) is ready to work again, and her supervisor does not have seem to have much problem with having her back, though he makes a rather insensitive remark on motherhood in front of her.

As Jeong-ah is absent at her apartment, her dear little daughter is going to be taken care of by a hired nanny instead of a generous neighbor who has usually done that job, but there is one little problem. She wants a South Korean nanny, but the agency sends a Korean Chinese woman named Hwa-ja (Oh Min-ae) instead. At first, Jeong-ah considers simply sending away this woman, but, after seeing how Hwa-ja handles her daughter well, she decides to give a chance to Hwa-ja at least for a while, and Jeong-ah’s husband has no problem with that at all despite his prejudice against Korean Chinese people.

During next several days, everything looks like going pretty well for Jeong-ah at her home as well as her workplace, but, of course, there comes a sudden problem. On one day, Hwa-ja suddenly becomes absent along with Jeong-ah’s daughter for no apparent reason, and Jeong-ah is naturally thrown into panic. Not long after she returns to her apartment in the evening, Hwa-ja eventually returns along with Jeong-ah’s daughter, but she does not explain anything to Jeong-ah or her husband at all.

Quite angry about this incident, Jeong-ah fires Hwa-ja, and Hwa-ja leaves without any protest, but Jeong-ah’s daily life soon becomes quite messy. Because that generous neighbor of hers cannot take care of her daughter due to a personal matter, Jeong-ah naturally looks for any daycare center available to her, but there is not any daycare center which can accept her daughter right now, and that makes her all the more desperate and frustrated than before.

Meanwhile, Jeong-ah’s husband begins to suggest that she should be a full-time mother instead of trying to work again, and she also cannot help but feel more pressured at her workplace as her supervisor demands more from her in one way or another. There is a young female employee who was hired not long after Jeong-ah’s pregnancy, and it begins to look quite possible to Jeong-ah that this young woman will replace her someday if Jeong-ah does not work as much as expected by her supervisor.

Meanwhile, Jeong-ah’s problem with Hwa-ja becomes more complicated than expected. She subsequently discovers a possible sign of physical abuse on her daughter’s body, and her husband is certainly furious when he belatedly learns of that. When they eventually go to where Hwa-ja lives, it turns out that Hwa-ja has a very complicated situation behind her back, and that brings more conflict to Jeong-ah’s increasingly stressful mind. Seeing how Hwa-ja is not so different from her, she tries to make some amends, but Hwa-ja flatly reminds her of the considerable social gap between them, and that makes Jeong-ah all the more regrettable with more stress and doubt upon her.

The final act of the story will not surprise you much as Jeong-ah is thrown into more despair and frustration, but the movie continues to hold our attention under director/writer Hurjung-jae’s thoughtful direction. It does not have anything new to tell you if you are familiar with how many South Korean women have often been repressed and exploited by the patriarchy inside the South Korean society, but many of its key scenes are handled with enough realism and thoughtfulness, and we keep following Jeong-ah’s inevitable narrative course even though we wince more than once for good reasons. Around the end of the movie, the camera simply looks at her from the behind, but that is more than enough for us to sense the quiet emotional devastation below the surface.

Hur also draws the strong lead performance from Park Ha-sun, who ably conveys to us her character’s gradual mental implosion along the story. Park is also supported well by several main cast members including Oh Min-ae and Kong Seong-ha, and both Oh and Kong have each own moment to stand out while never overshadowing Park’s harrowing acting at all.

Overall, “First Child”, which is incidentally Huh’s first feature film, is a solid character drama mixed with some relevant gender issues, and it surely deserves to be mentioned along with many other recent notable South Korean female drama films such as “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982” (2019). Yes, this is surely not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but it is worthwhile to watch mainly thanks to Park’s commendable acting, and I assure you that you will reflect more on its gender issues once the movie is over.

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