Mothers and Daughters

in 18th Busan International Film Festival

by Carolin Weidner

Granted, to talk about family affairs is probably nothing extraordinary at all. Doesn’t it count as one of these basic things that take place in everybody’s life. We have all got a mother, right? Family members can’t really be ignored because their presence is that profound. Nevertheless an inspection of this unique connection between two woman, mother and daughter, seemed to be an extra issue this year at South Korea’s film festival at the shore of the Sea of Japan. Particularly in the section we, the five jurors of FIPRESCI, had to focus on: New Currents. Twelve pictures that summarised on some level the cinematic output of many Asian countries (nine), and detailed a new generation of filmmakers. As the catalogue puts it: “[Films in the] New Currents Section display a tendency of bold formal experimentation (like filming in one take), fluid viewpoints and an awareness of pressing social issues.”

It appears that family matters are especially a part of the social issues occupying the filmic mind of the directors. This is likely because of the tightly bonded relationships between parents and children in Asian families. Issues such as traditional conceptions hitting very differently against the needs and expectations of a more modern generation, children setting boundaries even if they still live in financial dependency to their parents and/or even still live at home, and how to control the intentions of daughters and sons if their reality hides behind the display of a mobile phone.

In Junichi Kanai’s Again (Yurusenai, aitai), the relationship between a mother and her adolescent daughter is one of the main subjects the plot focuses on. At first sight the tragic, violent, and also disturbing romance between the young daughter and her older romantic interest circles only around itself; no need for anybody else. But the more the dark and cheerless quality of the movie takes holder, the stronger the presence of the mother becomes. As an advocate for personal — and in particular female — rights, her fight against an unpunished rape illustrates the relationship to her daughter in an intense and reliable way.

With a somewhat similar energy (but much more disputable ambition), the mother of a 40-year-old screenwriter, Gaeul, in Pascha tries to force her daughter into a proper direction. Pascha, from Korean director Ahn Seonkyoung, is a distressing report of dishonour. Gaeul should marry a wealthy man — as soon as possible! Gaeul should become a mother, too — as soon as possible! And Gaeul should eat the mouth-watering beef her mother brought her for lunch — now! But Gaeul is in love with a 17-year-old, has cats instead of babies, and has lived as a vegetarian for years with no compromise in sight. It is a disrespectful treatment that hurts while watching in many ways. And her father? Let’s not speak about him…

The technically exciting The Story of an Old Woman by Kazakhstan’s Alexey Gorlov — the film tells its story in only one 75-minute shot — shows a completely different connection between mother and daughter, but it is no less dramatic. An elderly paralyzed woman, abandoned by her family in a nursing home for years, is surprised to find her relatives have suddenly come to take her back home. What the old woman does not know is that in reality the special offer is about money, a lot of money. Money the family could get if they show how well they care for the old lady’s good health. The absence of love is evident in the cruel and sadistic manner the daughter treats her mother. Is it payback? A chastisement? We don’t find out what happened in their past.

That the very complex, sensitive issue of mothers and daughters is not a new one became clear if you took a look at BIFF’s two remarkable retrospectives, devoted to Korean directors Park Chul-soo and Im Kwon-taek. In Park’s breathtaking thriller Mother (Eomi, 1985), a mother bravely rescues her daughter from filthy pimps that constrain her into prostitution. After she managed to do so, however, she suffers knowing that her daughter is not capable to cope with her experiences and commits suicide. The mother, completely in rage and mourning, seeks to extract violent revenge on the guilty men. A visually and acoustically impressive piece of Korean film history, with two heroic female protagonists.

Im Kwon-teak deals with the topic of a mother figure in a very unlikely way, putting Ji-sook, a teahouse owner in a seaside town, in charge of a few quite girlish women working for her. Ticket (1986) is in essence a portrait of Ji-sook, even when split into single episodes in which the lives of the young girls are represented. She is a somehow broken character that cares for her “daughters” in a carrot and stick way. In the end she dissolves, and with her goes the belief a relationship between mother and daughter could ever be simple.

Edited by Glenn Dunks