When teenager So-young belatedly discovers she is pregnant, her attempt to get an abortion is dismissed by a doctor as too dangerous. Overhearing their conversation however is middle-aged Seung-yeon who, after several years of trying and failing to become pregnant, offers So-young a deal – the baby for an expensive foreign car. As the two women head into the country for the final months of So-young’s pregnancy, they form a close relationship, supporting each other through the unusual circumstances. Yet they are beset by problems from Seung-yeon’s selfish husband, and a group of three hunters with a penchant for rape. All the while, a secretive gardener watches the events unfold.
As the title implies, Godsend (신의 선물) is intended as something of a contemporary nativity story, expressed through the unique visions of Kim Ki-duk – here on writing and producing duties – and protege director Moon Si-hyun (문시현). Kim Ki-duk’s methodology of employing amoral, misogynistic characters to explore social problems is quite apparent throughout the film, yet Godsend is also lighter than most projects he is involved with, presumably due to director Moon. Indeed, the portrayal and character development ascribed to unlikely duo So-young and Seung-yeon is quite charming, arguably even empowering, in the early stages of the film as the twosome attempt to complete their unorthodox deal without the aid of men. Bonding scenes, which include driving lessons and growing vegetables, are sweet natured and sincere. That is, before the inclusion of men. The male characters within Godsend are appalling beasts, and the threat of rape is constantly present throughout the film which often makes for uncomfortable viewing.
While early sex scenes between Seung-yeon and her husband convey an impersonal and unloving relationship very well, the theme of ‘sex as duty’ and his later consistent attempts to rape his own wife despite her proclamations to stop emphasise the intense misogyny laced within the story. This is further compounded by the three hillbilly hunters who lay sexual siege to the women, while So-young’s ex simply wants to receive a share of the money. In each predicament Seung-yeon and So-young are routinely blamed and ‘punished’ for stepping outside of traditional patriarchal ‘boundaries’, often to shocking – and infuriating – effect. While Kim Ki-duk certainly has his flaws, his depictions of misogyny are usually quite insightful on both character-driven and cultural levels. Such depth is not contained within Godsend, and as such the later attempts to change such morally vacuous males into upstanding gentlemen rings ridiculously hollow.
Yet Godsend is very engaging whenever the story returns to the developing sisterhood between Seung-yeon and So-young. Critics often lament Kim Ki-duk’s characters for taking huge and arguably illogical leaps within his narratives, and director Moon Si-hyun overcomes such concerns through non-linear editing. Initially the film jumps from So-young’s disgust at the proposed exchange to her journey with Seung-yeon into the countryside, yet director Moon fills in the gaps with flashbacks which works wonderfully in terms of character development, with their burgeoning relationship easily the heart and soul of the film.
As a modern nativity however, Godsend falls flat. While the first half of the film sets up events well, the second half provides an overabundance of sexist sub-plots that detract from the journey the women undertake. The constant misogyny and threat of rape constructs a perverse nativity as opposed to an exploration of contemporary pregnancy and childbirth issues. Thankfully the religious themes are not overt however, while the developing relationship between So-young and Seung-yeon makes Godsend an interesting and oft-compelling drama.
Godsend is a compelling attempt at a contemporary nativity story of sorts, based on a screenplay by Kim Ki-duk and directed by one of his proteges, Moon Si-hyun. Exploring the issues of pregnancy and surrogacy, the film shines when depicting the burgeoning relationship between the two central female protagonists as they bond during their unorthodox deal. However the inclusion of atrocious male characters, who perpetuate a constant threat of rape, often makes for uncomfortable viewing.