Saturday, October 3, 2009

NYFF: Two Very Remarkable Mothers

Kim Hye-Ja and Bin Won in "Mother." Photo courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center/CJ Entertainment.

MOTHERHOOD, that most difficult of jobs, has a prominent place in two of the strongest films Yours Truly has seen thus far at the 47th New York Film Festival.

In "Mother" the South Korean director, Bong Joon-Ho, again deftly weaves various genres into one film. Here, is murder mystery, comedy and thriller. An acupuncturist’s mentally challenged son is imprisoned for the murder of a promiscuous school girl. She and the son’s best friend are the only ones who believe he’s innocent. Familiar mystery fare, but Joon-Ho adds a number of flourishes that lifts it above the run-of-the mill.

The evidence against the son is overwhelming, but the captivating Kim Hye-Ja as the mother is steadfast and unrelenting in her quest to prove his (Bin Won) innocence despite police indifference, a flighty attorney, as well as ridicule and violence that is visited upon her by some women in her circle. Alone, she takes matters into her owns hands, becoming a detective in the spirit of “Miss Marple.”

She believes she has a break after the forgetful son remembers something about the night the girl was killed. Acting on his tip, she is persuaded that she has found the murder weapon in the apartment of his best friend. Incidentally, she enters uninvited and unexpected. While she’s still there his girlfriend drops by, then he returns home, forcing her to stay hidden in the closet where she’s just found the smoking gun: a “blood-smeared” golf club.” Soon enough the couple is having sex, and Joon-Ho allows the camera to linger as much on the mother’s anguished eye as the actual love-making. Indeed, Hye-Ja wears a wide-eyed, anguished countenance throughout the film, lending it much of its urgency.

Watching the young lovers, she seems more impatient than anything else. It’s as if she’s saying, “Will you guys hurry up and finish so I can sneak out of here and turn this golf club over to the police so this bum can be put behind bars where he belongs.” They take their sweet time, forcing her to wait until they fall asleep. Now, the lovers and bottles and assorted discarded wrappers litter the floor and bar a stealthy path to the door. Comedy and drama reside side by side as Joon-Ho’s camera toggles from — taking its own sweet time — spilled, rushing water, to the best friend’s fingertips to Hye-Ja’s frightened expression. It makes you squirm. She escapes undetected, and we let out a huge sigh of relief along with her.

The aggrieved friend later demands satisfaction, but he also imparts some wisdom: People kill for three reasons, he says. The dead girl has no money, so either passion or vengeance is the motive, he deduces, encouraging her to talk to the people who knew the girl, certain the killer is among them. Could be one of men whom she has hooked up with and photographed in various embarrassing stages of undress. "Don't trust anyone; don’t even trust me … you go out and find the real killer yourself," the friend warns.

Hye-Ja’s performance as a mother whose loves knows no bounds is the motor that drives the film, but Joon-Ho, who delighted Cannes in 2006 with “The Host” and again earlier this year with “Mother,” is a meticulous storyteller. He switches from comedy and drama but also fuses them in the same scene as easily as he would trip a light switch. The scene in the police precinct when Hye-Ja’s characer shows up with the golf club is Keystone copish. Detectives are sitting around doing nothing, or more precisely, not doing their work. One is asleep. The detective, a family friend, who’d earlier advised her to abandon her fruitless effort, is leering at mobile phone photos of a girl.

Dejected after learning that the golf club is not the murder weapon, the mother walks out into a heavy downpour. The detective follows with an umbrella. She refuses, but the umbrella doesn’t work anyway, much like the police. Some minutes later she fishes an umbrella off the top of a junk collector’s heap: It works, just like the junk collector. Smile. Remember him.

Another staple of the murder mystery genre that the director uses to good effect is the flashback. Commonly, in murder mysteries the flashback comes at the end when the detective has solved the case. But Joon-Ho’s use of it throughout the film provides welcome insight, without giving anything much away – until near the end. It’s as if he left the best for last. There are many touches that make “Mother” riveting, the exaggerated ticks of Bin Won as the dimwit, being one of the few missteps.

None of these devices, however, prepares us for the shocking ending. The mother’s anguish is not relieved. Rather it is exacerbated. So much so that to forget her troubles, she gives herself the very acupuncture she’d offered to others.

Mo’Nique is a mother who tries to forget her troubles by smoking and watching TV day and night in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” She’s is a big fan of “$100,000 Pyramid.” And she is a bad mother who abuses teenage daughter, “Precious,” the title character.

Precious embodies just about every clich├ęd downwardly mobile urban pathology one can conjure up: black (literally), overweight, unattractive, poor, pregnant (for the second time), semi-illiterate, criminally inclined, abused. The only major pathology that does not apply here in late 1980s Harlem is drugs. Usually, TV and film treats such tales with kid-gloves sympathy. Many directors use every trick in the book to gain the audience’s sympathy and yank at its heartstrings. After all, society owes these people big. Part of the payment is excusing far too many of their peccadilloes because their every misdeed is informed by their horrible living conditions. I steeled myself, so sure that “Precious” would be the latest tale of woe (and perhaps “Push” is, too). Get out the violins and the nose wipes, etc. etc.

How refreshing it was to be proved wrong. Lee Daniels would be the director to think outside of that pitiable box as he did in “Monster’s Ball” and in particular the critically acclaimed but poorly received (at the box office), “The Woodsman.”

Let’s be clear, Precious’ life is hell. She lives with a mother who daily heaps physical and emotional abuse on her, someone who constantly informs her that she’s ugly, dumb and stupid, and actually encourages her to forget school and “go down to the welfare.” (Why not, look at what it’s done for her!) At even the slightest imagined insolence from Precious, she thinks nothing of throwing any object within reach at her. She hates her daughter because in her warped mind she believes that the girl took her man, this man would be Precious’ father who raped his daughter, giving her two children, one a daughter with Down Syndrome, by the age of 16. LD seems to be drawn to material that deals with sexual dysfunction, the kind that Viagra won’t correct.

Despite her troubles, Precious perseveres. One survival tactic is fantasy. In her fantasty world, she is a famous, beloved entertainer with a handsome (and light-skinned) boyfriend by her side. Daniels said during a Q&A after the screening that these scenes are not in “Push;” he inserted them for levity’s sake and a more practical reason.

“I felt that if we stayed in the reality, as the book does, it would be X-rated. There’s no way we could show the deplorable acts that this mother does and get a rating,” he said. “And I felt, too, though when bad things happened to me I always used to pretend I was someplace else.”

Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe as Precious. Photo courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center/Lionsgate.

The fantasy scenes are a welcome relief from the disturbing events we are witnessing and they are a wise addition. One wishes, though, LD would have taken similar liberties with Mo’Nique’s character. Granted, he said she’s meaner in the book, but why not tamp her down even more? Her meanness borders on caricature, and does not ring true. But this is what LD wanted from the actress whom he directed in “Shadowboxers.” “We were one,” he said of their work in "Precious." Another shortcoming in an otherwise potent story is that it doesn't reveal what made the mother into the kind of person who would permit and commit the abuse visited upon her child.

Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe, above, is to be commended for bringing great humanity and dignity to this character, which could be hard to miss buried under 300 pounds and skin so ebony that one cannot see the whites of her eyes. This is her film, and she carries it.

Precious’ life begins to take a turn for the better when she joins an alternative school. After reluctantly introducing herself to the small class, she says it’s the first time she’s said anything in a class. The no-nonsense teacher played by Paula Patton, in what is not the typical saintly educator role, asks Precious how it makes her feel. “It makes me feel here.”

This is one of the scenes that may provoke some to reach for the Kleenex, not because we feel sorry for Precious, but because we are celebrating with her. Throughout the film, we’re celebrating with her. All she needs is some love, intensive therapy, and God, some good breaks, please. A tender and ironic scene is the one in the hospital after Precious has given birth to her second child, a boy. She’s done a very adult thing, but she and her visiting classmates are acting very much like what they are – teenagers: giggling, gossiping, teasing and flirting with the handsome male nurse played by Lenny Kravitz in a commendable supporting performance; so, too, is Mariah Carey as the sympathetic social worker to whom Precious tells all of the family secrets in a humorous meltdown moment.

Just as Precious is about to pull herself up by her boot straps she receives another blow. For the first time in the film, she descends – or tries to – into self-pity: nobody loves her, they beat her, they rape her, make her feel worthless and so on. At this point, we are willing to allow her this one indulgence. But PP’s teacher will not brook it. “Write,” she admonishes Precious. “Write.”

“I didn’t want people to feel that we were feeling sorry for Precious,” LD explained. “I could have lingered, but I stepped out of it.”

Pass the Kleenex, please.

For a complete list of 2009 New York Film Festival entries and ticket/general information, visit:

1 comment :

  1. Excellent review, Vev. The site looks fabulous. I like the photo illustrations on all of the blogs.



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