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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Mama (마마) 2011

Um Jung-hwa puts on a smile for her dying son

It’s hard to overstate the importance of mothers in Korean cinema.  They are the ideal embodiment of han, that perennial trait considered universal to the Korean experience.  Han is a difficult concept to grasp but it could be said to denote a feeling of the oppressed that embodies unaddressed resentment, injustice, and isolation.  It can be described as a deep-down, lifelong ache in the soul caused by sorrow and grief. The poet Ko Eun said “We Koreans were born from the womb of han and brought up in the womb of han”. Ko’s use of the word ‘womb’ is quite striking but with a little experience of Korean culture it’s quite easy to see where this view may come from.  Just as han is key to the Korean experience, melodrama is key to Korean entertainment as it is heavily informed by this concept.

Melodrama has roots that go back to the 18th century, when staged performances in France began to be accompanied by live music to heighten the emotional state of the viewer, early examples include Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1762).  The theatrical innovation quickly spread and was used by such luminaries of the time as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Richard Strauss, and Gilbert and Sullivan.  The format was even more suitable for film.  When it came along, Gainsborough’s British melodrama’s of the 1940s and the ornate Douglas Sirk works of the 1950s reinvented the genre.  These days melodramas appear all over the world and are very prevalent in Asia, where there is a strong emphasis on family, particularly in Far Eastern countries that practice Confucianism.

Jeon Soo-kyeong as the stuck up opera singer

Perhaps more than in any other Confucian countries, South Koreans may be the biggest consumers of melodramas.  Korean melodramas are full of characters imbued with han which stems from their traumatic backstories.  The country, with its long history of oppression and occupations, is no stranger to sad stories of Koreans unable to avenge the injustices they face or have faced and are thus forced to live with it, therefore being saddled with han.

It should come as no surprise that a film like Mama, a sort of interwoven omnibus featuring three mother-child pairings, would come along in Korean cinema.  The first of the pairs features Dong-sook (Uhm Jung-hwa), a single mother who puts on a brave face everyday as she takes care of her dying son Won-jae (Lee Hyeong-seok) until she is also diagnosed with a terminal illness.  In the second strand, Hee-kyeong (Jeon Soo-kyeong) is an arrogant opera singer who acts like a diva, her married daughter (Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong) works as her assistant and has lived in her shadow all of her life.  In the third story, Seung-chol (Yu Hae-jin) hides the fact that he is a gangster from his mother Ok-joo (Kim Hae-sook) and tries to grant her wish of seeing her first love again before undergoing a mastectomy. 

Yu Hae-jin as the gangster mama's boy

If all this seems a little cynical and opportunistic in its design, that’s because it is but it’s all fair game as you would hardly expect anything else from this kind of a film.  I don’t like to be manipulated by filmmakers, or at least I say that sometimes as a form of attack against directors I don’t like, but the truth is that I love to be manipulated.  Just like a great many film viewers, I’m a catharsis junkie, desperately seeking out those potent highs of my very best film viewing experiences.  So really it’s not manipulation that I’m against, it’s crass manipulation that is poorly integrated or evident in its construction.  If I notice it and it doesn’t affect me, that’s a problem.

The funny thing about Korean melodramas is that it’s hard not to notice the cogs at work behind the scenes, trying to get our tear ducts flowing.  They’re the cinematic equivalent of having a sliced onion shoved in your face.  Seldom are they subtle, yet they often work and I often ask myself why?  I suppose Korean filmmakers know what they’re doing, given the industry’s ample experience in the field, and a quick look at the country’s recent history shows that indeed, they have much to be melodramatic about.

Uncertain futures

So the question is:  does Mama work?  I have to wiggle my fingers and say ‘sort of.’  Of the three narratives, the terminally-ill mother-son tag team is clearly meant to be the most emotionally affecting.  It’s very sad and there’s nothing wrong with it, certainly not in its execution, but it’s just one incurable disease too many in Korean cinema.  Part of the problem is that they are both such saints that it’s hard to believe them or get invested in their fate.  It might have worked better if Uhm Jung-hwa was more like the characters she is known for like Princess Aurora (2005) or the writer in Bestseller (2010) but that would have made for a very different film and with only a third of the feature-length running time available to it, it would have been difficult to pull off.  Perhaps that is the problem, was there not enough time to squeeze in two illnesses and flesh out realistic characters in the space of roughly 40 minutes?  In this case, cardboard characters are an easier fit.

The diva mother-daughter pairing featured many intriguing elements that may have struck a chord with certain audiences members:  living in the shadow of your parents; living at home; not being able build a career; or become autonomous.  Here the mother is strict but again a little too caricatured to be very effective. Jeon Soo-kyeong performs her with gusto but she strains credulity past breaking point.

Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong ignored by her mother

The third strand was my favorite for three reasons:  the formidable Yu Hae-jin is in it; it’s very funny; and it’s genuinely quite sweet.  Once again it’s a vignette built on an implausible conceit:  a gang boss hiding his identity to his mother, whom he dotes on.  Since it’s played for laughs it’s easy to get past that, even better is the warm pairing of Kim Hae-sook and Yu, despite all their initial brittleness.  There’s a great little scene where Seung-chol is at the supermarket with his mother and she asks what the English word for tofu is.  He makes up some nonsense but he’s overheard by a tall Australian English teacher who comes over and corrects him, repeatedly, even after being threatened.  Yu sells it but I especially enjoyed it because I knew that teacher could have been me, because I’m tall and I’ve worked as an English teacher in the past but mainly because I can be really pedantic.

One out of three is not a great batting average but I certainly wouldn’t ward you off Mama, especially if you like melodramas.  It’s a worthwhile film that is an interesting encapsulation of the various melodramatic formats employed in Korean film, with oodles of han to boot.  Each story has something to say but unfortunately the inadequate time consecrated to each sacrifices the depth of the characters.



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