South Korean animation film “Mother Land” is a precious work to be cherished. As a stop-motion animation film, it is rather modest compared to, say, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (2022) or many of the recent acclaimed works from Laika Studios, but it is equipped with its own style and personality at least, and its simple but sincere fairy tale will engage you more than expected once you give it a chance.
The story is set in a remote tundra area of Siberia around the late 20th century, and the opening part introduces us to one local nomad tribe family who has been going through one particularly harsh winter season. As their parents are mostly occupied with their daily work on a bunch of reindeers, Krisha (voiced by Lee Yun-ji) and her younger brother Ggolrya (voiced by Kim Seo-yeong) also try to help their parents in one way or another, but then Krisha’s mother unfortunately gets injured due to Krisha’s little regretful mistake, and Krisha certainly feels guilty about that while hoping that her mother will soon get recovered.
However, Krisha’s mother does not show any sign of recovery during next several days, so Krisha’s father eventually decides to go to a nearby city for getting the medicine for his wife, but Krisha has some other idea. Having often seen a certain mythical creature in her dream, she comes to believe that this mythical creature can cure her mother, but her father does not believe that much, while emphasizing to her that she should stay along with her mother and younger brother during his temporary absence.
Of course, our plucky heroine eventually decides to take care of the situation for herself not long after her father goes to the city. Without telling anyone, she goes out along with her trustworthy reindeer which will pull her sled, but then she discovers that Ggolrya is hiding inside her sled. She is not so pleased about this, but, mainly because they have already gone too far from their home, she eventually lets her brother accompany her despite the considerable risk they are going to face along their long journey.
While heading to a certain isolated spot where that mythical creature is supposedly living, they surely come across a number of serious troubles besides the increasingly cold and harsh weather. At one point, they will have to cross a perilous swampy area as depending only on their reindeer’s instinct, and then there come several nasty wolves which steadily go after them and their reindeer till a certain point.
However, the biggest menace in the story comes from an obnoxious Russian military officer named Vladimir (voiced by Lee Gwan-mok). As assisted and guided by a local hunter who knows a lot about the tundra area and its animals, Vladimir is quite eager to hunt that mythical creature by any means necessary, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Vladimir and his guide eventually encounter Krisha and Ggolrya later in the story.
Without hurrying itself, the screenplay by director/writer Park Jae-beom, who previously made several short animation films before making a feature film debut here, steadily rolls its story and characters toward its expected finale, and then it brings out some surprising moments of poignancy. While its main characters are pretty simple to the core, the story brings enough gravitas to their situation for engaging us, and we come to care more about what is being at stake for them. For Krisha, saving her mother seems the most important thing to her for a while, but then there comes a task more important than that, and she becomes quite willing to make a defiant stand against her opponents even though there is not much chance for her from the beginning.
Furthermore, the film is commendable in its technical aspects. Although it is clear that they were often limited by their small production budget, Park and his crew members put lots of painstaking efforts onto the screen, and their overall result is charming in its simple but effective aesthetical qualities. The main characters in the film mostly look broad and coarse in their appearance, but they look and feel more alive as the film gradually builds its own fantasy world around them, and we are also served with a little dose of realism as shown from a brief bloody scene involved with one reindeer butchered for meat and blood.
The voice cast members are also crucial in bringing more life and personality to the main characters in the film. As the center of the story, Lee Yun-ji gives a likable voice performance, and she is complemented well by Kim Seo-young. In case of several other voice cast members, Lee Yong-nyeo, Kim Ye-eun, and Kang Gil-woo are also well-cast in their respective supporting parts, and Lee Gwan-mok is suitably mean and haughty for his villainous role.
On the whole, “Mother Land” is another notable South Korean animation film to watch, and it is all the more valuable considering that there have been a very few stop-motion animation films in South Korean during last 70 years. This is surely something to be appreciated by not only young audiences but also adult ones, and I can only hope that it will help its apparently talented director moving onto more artistic accomplishment during next several years.