“My Eleventh Mother” sees popular Korean actress Kim Hye Su, best known for playing sexy sirens in the likes of “Tazza: The High Rollers” and “A Day For An Affair”, taking on a very different role. Here, eschewing make up for the most part, she plays a down and out woman who is offered one final chance to find meaning in her life after she is landed with the job of taking care of a young boy. The film also represents a bit of a departure for director Kim Jin Sung, who previously tried his hand at comedy with “Surprise” and martial arts action with “Geochilmaru”.
The film begins as a young boy called Jae Su (Kim Young Chan, also in “Lovers In Paris”) is introduced to the latest in a long line of stepmothers after his father (Ryu Seung Ryong, “Cruel Winter Blues”) brings home a wasted looking faded glamour girl (Kim Hye Su )and unceremoniously announces that she will be taking care of him. Though at first she gets on his nerves by eating all of his food and just sitting around all day playing music loudly, the two eventually warm to each other. Unfortunately, their modest happiness is soon threatened by Jae Su’s abusive father and the fact that the woman’s formerly rough life starts to take its toll on her health.
Of course, the bonding between son and surrogate mother is pretty much inevitable, and certainly “My Eleventh Mother” is not the kind of film that should be watched for unexpected narrative twists and turns, with the plot being predictable and entirely formulaic as is usually the case with melodramas. However, what sets it apart from ever growing pack of similarly themed efforts are the richly developed characters and the hard edge which director Kim brings to the drama. To a large extent the film works thanks to a couple of great lead performances, both from Kim Hye Su, who is excellent and wholly believable as the wretched, washed up bargirl, and Kim Young Chan as the unfortunate little tyke, whose role is far more substantial than the usual cute kid sympathy magnets who tend to populate this kind of material.
The relationship between the two builds in an unconventional and touching manner, from their early misunderstandings, battles over food and petty one-upmanship through to their hesitant affection. As a result of the time spent on character development, their small steps towards happiness and trust are genuinely moving and are certainly well deserved. It goes without saying that the film does settle into the inevitable mother-son dynamic for the last act, complete with declarations of love and devotion, though at least in this case the scenes of over the top emotion have been earned and don’t suddenly appear from nowhere.
The film also benefits from being quite gritty and grounded, especially during the first hour, which is relatively free of sentimental montages and teary scenes, focusing mainly on the two characters and their harsh lives in the run down shack of a home. The budget was obviously quite low, and Kim’s direction is pleasantly naturalistic without ever being too intrusive, even during some of the more obviously orchestrated moments. This gives the film a certain believability and a credible emotional core to build from, which again helps during the last act dive into true melodrama.
Sadly, the tragedy heaped on during the final half hour is a little unnecessary, and Kim goes too far in trying to coach a few extra tears from the viewer, when perhaps a steady hand and sticking to the film’s earlier realism would have served better. Certainly, by this point it already would be hard not to feel sorry for the two, not least since actor Ryu Seung Ryong makes for a truly monstrous figure, a drunken, seemingly irredeemable brute of a crook who lurches in and out of the story, beating and cursing them both, and who is constantly threatening to split them up by selling her as a prostitute. This makes for a certain amount of tension, as whenever he appears the viewer cringes, waiting for the fists to start flying. Unpleasant though these scenes are, they are arguably more valuable to the overall effect of the film, both in terms of keeping it harshly convincing, and in providing a further motivation for the bond that develops between boy and woman.
It is the resulting feeling that “My Eleventh Mother” takes place in the real world rather than some sentimental dreamland that makes it a superior example of the form, and whilst unlikely to win over any viewers whose skin crawls at the mere thought of melodrama, it should be enjoyed by both devotees and casual film fans. This is largely due to the excellent performance from Kim Hye Su, who manages to elevate the film from tawdry sentiment to being a genuine slice of character driven drama, and who again shows why she is considered one of Korea’s most talented actresses.
Kim Jin-seong (director) / Kim Jin-seong (screenplay)
CAST: Kim Hye-soo …. Woman
Kim Young-chan …. Jae-soo
Ryoo Seung-yong …. Jae-soo’s father
Hwang Jeong-min …. Baek-jong
Kim Ji-yeong …. Baek-jong’s mother