Part of MKC's Revenge Week (July 8-14, 2013).
It’s a funny thing to think you understand something and then experience it first hand, only to realize how naïve you’ve been about the subject. Truth be told, that’s happened to me a few times since arriving in Korea. Having lived in so many places before and being well versed in Korean cinema, my hubris and I felt quite comfortable in our knowledge of a country we’d never been to. My ego has taken a few digs since then but far more devastating has been my steep learning curve regarding social issues.
Before coming here there were plenty of things that I knew about, indeed Korea’s traumatic history is a large part of what drew me to its cinema. Brutal law enforcement, heavy drinking, regressive woman’s rights, harsh working conditions, educational pressure, sex abuse, corruption and misguided religious beliefs are among the many things I was aware of. Now, though I acknowledge that I still have much to learn, I’ve come into much closer contact with these elements of society.
One of the most sordid aspects of the country is the abuse of women. Korea is still very patriarchal and while on paper (or on screen) I knew what that meant, I didn’t really understand it. Personally, even just the word rape is something I find tremendously upsetting and rather than go into any detail on my feelings about it, let’s just say that some of what happens in Korea truly shocks me. Common but severely underreported, the frequency of women and girls being used as objects is a terrible reality of a country that has leapt forward economically and technologically while social progress (which takes generations, not years) lags sorely behind.
Don’t Cry Mommy tackles this issue head on and does not hide its intention to outrage viewers. It attempts to provoke a strong emotional response in a bid to raise the profile of a hidden problem in the nation. Achieve this it does, as it aroused a lot of anger during its run late last year. It’s the stuff of nightmares and the stripped down shooting style, as well as the initial lack of histrionics, make it a difficult experience. But soon the film’s weaknesses become readily evident as it can no longer rely on its shocking premise.
A single mother is struggling to open her new café while her daughter enrolls in a new school. She takes an interest in an aloof boy but it isn’t long before she finds herself in hospital, the victim of a brutal gang rape. Frantic, her mother seeks justice on the perpetrators. They are quickly caught and brought to trial but as they are minors they get away scot-free. The daughter, distraught and depressed as she recovers at home, receives a message from one of her assailants. They filmed the act and will post it online if she does not comply with her wishes. Comply she does and soon after her mother comes home to find her in a blood-filled bathtub. With no help from the authorities or the courts, she now seeks to avenge her daughter herself.
In her first leading role, Yoo-sun has a tough job but once the going gets tough, all she does, or perhaps all she’s given a chance to, is act hysterically, and she does so with gusto. Following her daughter’s death, she discovers the video of her attack and as she watches it we are subjected to her shrieking wails for what feels like an eternity. The problem is that debut director Kim Yong-han exercises no restraint. Other films that have dealt with similar issues have been careful to steer clear of overt melodramatics, often yielding fare greater results, such as Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (2010) and Lee Don-ku’s Fatal (2012).
Don’t Cry Mommy initially premiered at last October’s Busan International Film Festival, where Azooma, another very similar film, screened. Both deal with single mothers, a raped daughter, a slightly concerned gruff detective, no real help from the authorities, the mother taking matters into her own hands and a low-budget, shaky and colorless aesthetic. It’s curious that two projects that are so similar popped up at the exact same time. While I commend their attempt to draw attention to a sensitive but exceedingly important subject, and am glad that this problem is getting more exposure through the medium, I think the topic alone is not enough. A film remains a film and as such needs to be handled with care.
I’m glad this film exists but I also don’t think that it will have any lasting impact, despite its' big opening weekend at the local box office (though it dived subsequently). Shocking but without substance, Don’t Cry Mommy is a good intention lacking in discipline and form.
Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).