Busan 2022 Review: MOTHER LAND, Gorgeous Korean Stop Motion Animation Heads Out onto the Ice
Unlike Hollywood, France or Japan, Korea isn't known for any particular kind of animation. However, the country is overflowing with animators, and when not being outsourced to foreign productions, they churn out unique local films that each march to the beat of their own drum.
Mother Land, a Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA) project that marks the feature debut of director Park Jae-beom, is just such a film. While some recent shorts such as Kim Kangmin's Deer Flower have earned awards and acclaim from festivals around the world, this is the first feature-length stop motion film to emerge from the country in quite some time.
This gorgeously realized fantasy survival drama takes place on the snow-swept arctic tundra and focuses on a family from the hardy Yates tribe. Despite the encroaching advance of civilization, this tribe maintains a traditional way of life, sleeping in tents and subsisting, as the film's opening titles inform us, "on the blood and flesh of reindeer."
Though it strives for a sweeping and epic tone, the story is actually very straightforward. Krisha is a little girl who lives with her parents and younger brother Kolya. When their father heads into town to find medicine for their sick mother, the children set out across the tundra in search of the Red Bear, who is said to watch over the land and possess the ability of healing. The only problem is that a Russian aristocrat and his ex-Yates tribesman hunter guide are also on the mythical beast's trail.
The loss of tradition in the face of encroaching modernity is an evergreen subject and while Mother Land doesn't quite express any sentiments or ideas we haven't seen before, it is earnest and richly realized. This makes it easy to fall into the story's rhythm, even though, at just over an hour in length, the film is on the short side.
It borrows familiar elements from previous films such as the homegrown Colonial Era hunting action-drama The Tiger and the Japanese animated classic Princess Mononoke. The result is clear and undeniably effective, but it doesn't bring anything new to the subject.
The lack of depth and novelty in Park's treatment of his themes make the story come across as naive at times. This feeling is compounded before the siblings set off on their adventure owing to somewhat stilted family scenes that employ contemporary dialogue and a childish animated style that clashes with the rustic backdrop.
But once the journey begins these concerns quickly fade away as the film sweeps us up with its focus, sincerity and especially its beautiful stop motion animation. The tactile sets, with their powdery snow and undulating swamps, are a joy to behold, while the artful lighting and meticulous framing heighten the emotional sensations within the story, particularly as it moves more into fantasy in the second half.
Given the film's effective set pieces, which include tense chases with wolves and standoffs with the hunters, there's no doubt that Park knows how to stage a scene but his film lacks conviction in its closing moments, a consequence of the story's overly simplistic plotting and themes.
There's a lot to admire here but hopefully we'll get a chance to see how he might fare with a richer story in a future project.