[K-FILM REVIEWS] 애자 (Goodbye Mom)

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[K-FILM REVIEWS] 애자 (Goodbye Mom)
It's kind of ironic that the realization came by watching something as far from the concept of femininity as Kwak Kyung-Taek's 친구 - 우리들의 전설 (Friend - Our Legend) is, but maybe that's another proof of how much depth and meaning his first ever TV drama had. That is, in the midst of what you'd expect to be raging machismo and tidal waves of testosterone, what often stood out instead were the women - Busan's tough as nails women, with the charisma and panache of divas from the Golden Age, their often rugged exterior chiseled by time. Generalizations are always the most friendly of compeers when trying to make a point, but meet any woman (particularly of a few generations older than today's teenagers) from Busan, and you'll feel that unique color, mixing their often disarmingly pragmatic ways with the irresistible warmth and joie de vivre their exterior seldom reveals.

Through many a male-centered film, particularly Kwak's 친구 (Friend) and Choi Ho's 사생결단 (Bloody Tie), modern Korean cinema has served us with a pretty comprehensive identikit of the quintessential Busan male, but their female counterpart often had to move in their shadows, either reduced to a one-dimensional caricature (complete with painfully embellished accent) or a trifling flower vase. You'd be inclined to ask that kind of theme from TV, where female-centered stories reign supreme, but whereas the concept was often explored in the 90s, now accent and dialect are often used as a shallow catalyst to make one character's social status more explicit - as in, the uneducated country bumpkin always favors provincial dialects. That is why Friend - Our Legend's tentatives to swim against the current were so striking, and probably the reason why 애자 (Goodbye Mom) ends up becoming much more than a simple melodrama of reconciliation between one of the most tumultuous pairs known to mankind: mother and daughter.

At first sight, this might seem like a 2000s Busan rendition of 마요네즈 (Mayonnaise), with Choi Kang-Hee playing the late Choi Jin-Shil's role, and veteran Kim Young-Ae taking over Kim Hye-Ja's reign. The 1999 film, now a mostly forgotten footnote in the annals of Choi's tragically short career, was essentially an evolution of a few roles she and Kim Hye-Ja had played on TV, first in the 1998 masterpiece 그대 그리고 나 (You and I) as mother and daughter, and then in the hilarious 1999 weekend drama 장미와 콩나물 (Roses & Beansprouts) as in-laws from different social backgrounds. Goodbye Mom is topical in this case, because the dynamics of this daughter-mother relationship resemble the aforementioned works, and of course we're getting a duo of similar quality essaying them - Choi Kang-Hee will probably never make it as big as Choi Jin-Shil, but she's now oozing the same kind of verve Choi displayed in the early 90s, before turning into Korea's favorite sweetheart.

At the core, it's an old school melodrama whose path is laden with an overused narrative MacGuffin like cancer (no worries, it's revealed so early on that few people would ever consider it a spoiler), and the fact that this is used as a catalyst for a reconciliation of sorts might suggest a trite and cheap cop out finale, but the film is anything but, likely because of its overpowering Busan fragrance. Or maybe I should just call it smell? Again, it's a generalization which slowly turned into a cultural cliche-cum-prejudice, but many a Busan woman does exhibit that rather... salty personality across the generations, which explains the constant bickering between aspiring writer Ae-Ja (Choi) and her veterinarian mother Young-Hee (Kim). The subject of such tirades offers very little novelty to the mother-daughter canon: momma hates the fact her daughter doesn't have a secure, "normal" job, and of course she wants to see her married pronto. But Ae-Ja, once known as "Busan's Tolstoy (!)" would rather fulfill her dreams of becoming a writer, and when her mother's cancer relapses and she's essentially forced to look after her, decade old grudges start coming to the surface once again.

It's a very simple story, one which really doesn't concern itself with the melodramatic minefield it's walking on, and always ends up putting the spotlight back on its characters, which is what makes even the precious few tearjerking moments work. At the end of the day, all the time the film spends carving two three-dimensional characters out of the same old mold helps immensely, even when things get predictable. It is hardly subtle, but the quirky energy of the two main characters' repartee-laden journey of rediscovery and their chemistry suggests a more observant outlook on their lives, instead of complacently shoving a last minute reconciliation down your throat with some preposterous ballad, forcibly pulling the handkerchief out of your pocket. In terms of character development, there's a certain kind of symmetry between the two characters, a growth which for Ae-Ja means slowly coming out of the immature tomboy exterior that she conveniently maintains not to face reality, while Young-Hee's narrative arc is more concerned with coming to terms with her individuality, removed from the life-long role of mother. The two's relationship continuously morphs and evolves that journey, and is conveyed with such spontaneity and matter-of-fact restraint that it almost reminds of Hur Jin-Ho's early works, with the added value of Busan's many emotional "spices."

It's a surprising achievement for debuting director Jung Gi-Hoon, mostly because his past work as a writer was far from impressive. Growing under Kim Yoo-Jin ever since his 금홍아 금홍아 (My Dear Keum-Hong) days, Jung did research for Kim's underrated detective flick 와일드 카드 (Wild Card) and mostly worked under him for most of his films up to the deservedly maligned 신기전 (The Divine Weapon), alternating between film and Music Videos (yes, in Korea they have scripts even for those). Sure enough, his work on 고死 (Death Bell) did smell of his music video roots, and the lack of historical relevance and the sanctimonious, bombastic flag-waving escapades of The Divine Weapon didn't promise too well for his first solo effort as a writer-director. Then again, Goodbye Mom was a project which started four years ago with him winning a script contest in Busan, and the attention to detail clearly shows. Maybe all Jung needed to find his voice was directing his own scripts, as gone is all the misguided bling of Death Bell and the amateurish tonal shifts of the 2008 quasi-sageuk with Jung Jae-Young, replaced by eclectic realism and sparks of vitality as side dish. Admittedly, the cast helped him hugely.

Of course they're not alone, as the few moments Jang Young-Nam, Bae Soo-Bin and Choi Il-Hwa get are filled with excellent acting, but this film belongs first and foremost to its leading ladies, Choi Kang-Hee and Kim Young-Ae. I would venture to say this might be a turning point for both, and not just because of the film's surprising success at the box office. With decades of great acting on TV and the big screen, Kim had built a legacy as one of the best veteran actresses in Korea, on par with 마더 (Mother)'s Kim Hye-Ja and Im Sang-Soo regular Yoon Yeo-Jung. But there is a reason why this is her first role since her impressive turn in the 2006 TV sageuk 황진이 (Hwang Jin-Yi): she briefly retired from the industry to run her own business, and then experienced a maelstrom of bad decisions, even worse luck, lawsuits and ultimately even divorce. Maybe for that reason, her Young-Hee here feels a little more vulnerable than what she used us to before her first retirement, a glorious balancing act between the quintessential Busan tough broad with her rugged exterior, and a woman trying to leave behind something meaningful in the twilight of her life. The fact that the two aspects of her character (that of mother and woman) feel so different yet so charmingly connected is a testament to her great performance.

And when it comes to Choi Kang-Hee, this might just be what marks the start of her second career, as she often suggested in various interviews. Those who saw her move her first steps into the acting world during the mid 90s - first on TV with sparse appearances of little note, then later with her more striking big screen debut in the incipit of the long-running horror franchise 여고괴담 (Whispering Corridors) - will know that while she never really disappointed (save the occasional, eerily misguided sageuk appearance), she projected too strong a personality and screen presence to develop any serious range, which is crucial if you want a long career. Some find that maturity early on, like Gong Hyo-Jin with 네 멋대로 해라 (Ruler of Your Own World); others do it after a half decade spent wasting time (or making money, if seen from their perspective) with characters patterned the same way, and then suddenly "see the light," like Son Ye-Jin with 연애시대 (Alone in Love). But for what concerns Choi, who is now over 30 but had been playing roles which better suited 20-something actresses for the last half decade, it just felt like she decided an u-turn was needed, all on her own.

The first signs came last year with the "arthouse chick-lit" 달콤한 나의 도시 (My Sweet Seoul), a deliciously subtle romcom on TV directed by Park Heung-Shik of 나도 아내가 있었으면 좋겠다 (I Wish I had a Wife) - think 60s Godard shooting Bridget Jones' Diary - where Choi slowly emerged from the usual pitfalls of her old performances and delivered a much more organic, mature and fascinating portrayal of a woman with just as many flaws as her charms. The evolution she shows here doesn't really have to do with technique or screen presence, as she had that from the very start. It's more of a low-fi, what you see is what you get feeling, looking just as effortless as it is carefully sprinkled with many layers - from the raging Peterpan Complex of Ae-Ja's dreams to the mounting pressure her situation forces upon her, in turn pushing that maturity she conveniently hid to emerge. It's the best performance of her career, and the fact that she was the first one to "engineer" this u-turn can only promise good things for her future.

Although calling Goodbye Mom one of the most pleasant surprises of the year is certainly understandable - particularly considering how it built its box office score with word of mouth and not distribution shenanigans and/or scorched-earth marketing - Korean audiences have shown more than once that solid, mature filmmaking with enough charm and good acting to please both casual moviegoers and critics has always had a place amongst the array of turgid blockbusters that infest cinemas today. But it's all the more pleasing to see something so low-key and unassuming make a mark, as it'll probably teach investors that tsunamis and endless sequels are not what helped this dinosaur resurrect from its long sleep. And that's because all it takes is a little maturity, and taking that first step towards the light....

RATING: 7.5

애자 (Goodbye Mom)
Director: 정기훈 (Jung Gi-Hoon)
Screenplay: 정기훈 (Jung Gi-Hoon)
Produced By: Daisy Entertainment
Int'l Sales: Showbox/Mediaplex
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Box Office: #19 - 1,922,833 Admissions Nationwide - 13,607,550,000 Won
Release: 9/9/2009 (15 and Over)
CAST: 최강희 (Choi Kang-Hee), 김영애 (Kim Young-Ae), 배수빈 (Bae Soo-Bin), 최일화 (Choi Il-Hwa), 사현진 (Sa Hyun-Jin), 장영남 (Jang Young-Nam), 김재만 (Kim Jae-Man), 정혜선 (Jung Hye-Seon), CAMEO: 김C (Kim C)

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Gi-hoon JeongKang-hee ChoiYeong-ae KimSoo-bin BaeIl-hwa ChoiDrama