Madonna (마돈나) – ★★★☆☆

Madonna (마돈나)

Madonna (마돈나)

With debts mounting and depression looming, single thirty-something Hae-rim (Seo Yeong-hee (서영희) takes employment as a nurse on an exclusive VIP ward at a large hospital. Stunned by the difference in care the social-elite command, Hae-rim nevertheless works hard to provide treatment for her patient – an elderly and particularly wealthy mogul, whose son and heir Sang-woo (Kim Yeong-min (김영민) endeavours to keep alive whatever the cost. Following the tycoon’s latest heart transplant rejection time has seemingly run out, until the arrival of a comatose Jane Doe signals another possibility of prolonging his life. Yet upon Hae-rim’s discovery that the potential donor is pregnant, Sang-woo charges her with discovering the patient’s identity and obtaining permission from her next of kin, and in digging deeper into the life of Mi-na (Kwon So-hyeon (권소현) – nicknamed ‘Madonna’ – Hae-rim unearths some truly disturbing revelations.

Hae-rim is charged with locating Mi-na's next of kin

Hae-rim is charged with locating Mi-na’s next of kin

Featuring an equally impassioned sense of social injustice that made her prior film Pluto such a festival hit, writer/director Shin Su-won’s Madonna is a potent and unrelenting exploration of class inequality and misogyny in contemporary Korean society, one that potently generates debate on a great number of issues. The noir-esque drama also represents a clear technical evolution for Shin, as her collaboration with Yun Ji-woon’s on camera duties and Lee Shin-hye’s production design has yielded a noticeable level of visual finesse. Yet ultimately Madonna falls prey to overambition as the narrative attempts to include such a vast array of societal ills that the viewing experience becomes a punishing test of endurance, while structural imbalances in the final act tend to drain emotional resonance from the story. That said, Madonna is certainly one of the best Korean releases in the first half of 2015, and its premiere at Cannes was utterly deserved.

Director Shin displays incredible insight in regards to the culture of bullying within Korean culture, which she expresses through examining the rather vicious class system and associated sense of privilege, as well as the seemingly ingrained sexism and abuse that patriarchy knowingly perpetuates. The VIP wing beautifully captures such philosophies through portraying the excesses afforded to the rich clientele, with rooms adorned as if royalty were visiting yet are wonderfully cast in shadow to imply the secretive, macabre nature of the ward. The sense of entitlement expressed through the occupants articulate the amoral stance of the wealthy, with scenes featuring the chastisement of doctors akin to torture, the sexually predatory nature aimed at nurses, and one particularly effective confrontation, a discussion regarding obtaining organs via the Chinese black market. The hospital, as with the school in Pluto, is a location in which human rights abuses occur not only undisturbed, but are accepted.

As such, Hae-rim’s task in tracking Mi-na’s relatives becomes not merely an investigative case, but one that comes to embody an acute sense of social justice – for her, her unborn baby, and underprivileged women in general.

Hae-rim's investigation reveals a dark underbelly of abuse and misogyny

Hae-rim’s investigation reveals a dark underbelly of abuse and misogyny

With the advent of Hae-rim’s mission, the narrative switches from the tightly controlled and well paced clinic-centric drama to a non-linear one that examines the issues Hae-rim currently endures, alongside flashbacks that unveil the experiences that led to Mi-na’s hospitalisation. Initially the noir-esque device works wonderfully as it allows director Shin to explore an even greater array of societal abuse, victimisation and psychological trauma. As Hae-rim goes beyond her remit she discovers the horrifying tale of her ‘Madonna’ – of a woman abused at every level of society by those around her, with the cruelty she endures generating a more religious appropriation for her namesake as opposed to the pop idol.

Yet as the flashbacks detailing Mi-na’s past become increasingly longer, Hae-rim’s journey succumbs to a supporting role, and as a result the intrigue and tension initially constructed regarding the hospital and her position within it ultimately dissipates, as does the invest in her character. The different timelines also fail to generate an emotional connection between the two women given their very different trajectories. Director Shin seems to become aware of this and, quite jarringly, inserts a traumatic scene to create the required empathy yet due to the unbalanced structure of the final act, it doesn’t quite work as effectively as it could.

The consistent depiction of abuse towards Mi-na also becomes problematic as the film becomes akin to a gruelling test of endurance. The atrocities committed become ever more horrifying – and in one particular confrontation needlessly graphic – that lack the emotional and contextual gravitas as with, say, Han Gong-ju, resulting in provoking the debate of ‘just how far is too far’ in the depiction of sexual violence instead of the intended discourse of sexual assault on marginalised women.

In the role of Mi-na/Madonna however, newbie actress Kwon So-hyeon is terrific. She wholeheartedly commits to the role with impressive verve and courage with a performance that is likely to cement her as a presence in Korean indie cinema for years to come. Seo Yeong-hee meanwhile, who previously portrayed female abuse and cathartic revenge to stunning effect in Bedevilled, performs highly capably in what is ultimately an emotionally limited role. Her presence, while cold, is charismatic and her return as a powerful female lead is welcome indeed.

Mi-na's traumatic history of abuse is revealed through potent flashbacks

Mi-na’s traumatic history of abuse is revealed through potent flashbacks

Verdict:

Madonna is an impassioned story of social injustice and sexist abuse in contemporary Korean society by writer/director Shin Su-won. Displaying an evolved visual finesse and featuring a potent exploration of the cruel class system, the noir-esque drama is an unflinching take on societal ills. The film ultimately becomes a gruelling test of endurance and lacking in emotional resonance due to final act structural imbalances, yet despite this Madonna is certainly one of the best Korean films of 2015 so far.

★★★☆☆

Advertisements
Reviews

One on One (일대일) – ★★★☆☆

One on One (일대일)

One on One (일대일)

While walking home one night from school, a young girl is chased through the streets by a team of men and is brutally murdered. One year later, a mysterious team known as ‘the shadows’ arises. Led by a powerful leader (Ma Dong-seok (마동석) and his deputy (Ahn Ji-hye (안지혜), the shadows begin abducting seemingly random and successful men, demanding a written confession. If the abductees are unwilling, then various forms of torture soon remedy the situation. Yet when Oh Hyeon (Kim Yeong-min (김영민), the first victim to receive punishment from the shadows, begins trailing them, he is alarmed by what he uncovers.

The murder of a school girl begins a chain of torturous events

The murder of a school girl begins a chain of torturous events

One on One (일대일) is quite a refreshing change of pace for director Kim Ki-duk. His past few films, such as Moebius and Pieta, have arguably tended to focus more on excess and shock value rather than storytelling which, as a marketing tactic, has done wonders for his career and international exposure – awards. With One on One director Kim has returned to more traditional filmmaking fare by incorporating a linear narrative framework, while the story itself deals with individuals in the back alleys of Seoul who have fallen through the cracks of contemporary Korean society. Coupled with camera techniques reminiscent of his early works, director Kim has seemingly returned to his roots through this ‘raw’ tale of the circular nature of revenge.

Director Kim has always been a particularly divisive director, yet within his films his consistent desire to explore the social problems in Korea are always present and interesting. For many audiences it’s the manner in which he conveys such issues that raises alarm, however One on One is a much more toned-down affair than his previous efforts, less violent (both psychically and sexually) as well as less gratuitous, although it still contains his indelible stamp. Instead, director Kim allows his characters to express his societal concerns through the dialogue, quite a change of pace considering his tendency to focus his critiques through physicality.

The shadow group abduct and torture men for their criminal past

The shadow group abduct and torture men for their criminal past

Within One on One, the primary issue explored is one particularly unique to Korea – that in order to be successful, a junior must do whatever a senior demands, regardless of the ethics involved. Director Kim examines the socio-cultural phenomenon in an interesting, and ironic, fashion, as ‘the shadows’ simultaneously attempt to take revenge against those who were carrying out orders, yet following those of their leader in order to do so. The narrative impressively links all the characters together through their sense of ‘Han’ (suffering), depicting them all as victims of a cultural system that demands success at any cost, regardless of their wealth and social status. For the shadows, each member has been wronged in a manner that has forced them into poverty, whether by greedy landowners, oppressive spouses, or even the Korean education system. In regards to those comprising the social elite, their very souls have been tainted by what they have undertaken, turning them into fascistic monsters.

However while the film explores some very complex social features – issues that have risen to prominence following the Sewol ferry disaster – the narrative is incredibly overambitious. In scrutinizing such a vast array of issues the result is a rather superficial examination of each area, whereby the suffering of each shadow member is only glimpsed. As such it’s difficult to become wholeheartedly invested in their plight as well as the moral quandary arising from taking revenge. Also contributing significantly to the lack of empathy is the poor dialogue, which at times is quite naïve and simplistic, especially during the scenes spoken in English. Similarly, while Ma Dong-seok provides a powerful performance, and to a lesser extent (boy and girl), the supporting cast range from mediocre to poor which adds to the apathy.

The confessions procured reveal the nature of obeying orders at any cost

The confessions procured reveal the nature of obeying orders at any cost

Verdict:

One on One is something of a refreshing film by director Kim Ki-duk. In focusing on social issues through a traditional narrative framework, and in conjunction with rather ‘raw’ camera techniques, director Kim has crafted an interesting examination that removes the excess of his prior films. However as One on One is overly ambitious as well as containing poor dialogue, the film is difficult to fully invest in, and as such is an intriguing yet flawed addition to his filmography.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews