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Tears worth shedding for 'Mama'

2011/05/26 | 425 views | Permalink | Source

Actors Lee Hyung-suk, left, and Uhm Jung-hwa star in a scene from the family drama "Mama", which opens in theaters on June 2. / Courtesy of Lotte Entertainment

By Lee Hyo-won

Ahead of summer vacation, syrupy dramas and animations are on a roll, determined to squeeze tears from family audiences or make them laugh. Among upcoming works is "Mama", and it was not without some cynicism that this reporter sat down for what was obviously going to be a tearjerker designed to manipulate certain reactions from viewers.

The film does indeed elicit sobs and giggles as seasoned actors gush about loving moms, but it does not, thank goodness, force anything. Director Choi Ik-hwan (who created the witty rotoscoped film "Life is Cool") burns off sentimentality with a cool, distanced observation of actors' naturalistic performances, turning cliched formulas into a tasteful, well-orchestrated tragicomedy.

The thoroughly local fare is less likely to find overseas distribution but this doesn't make it any less worth seeing and will undoubtedly pave itself a permanent spot on weekend TV reruns for good, solid, handkerchief-drenching reasons.

Like most maudlin Korean movies about motherly devotion and sacrifice, "Mama" opts to explore mother-child dynamics under dramatic situations.

But what distinguishes the film is it counterpoints the melodramatic oomph with plenty of comic relief involving the more flawed, imperfect moms - those that are more childish than their own children, the ones that children fear of ever becoming.

The film interweaves three stories each playing its own part.

Uhm Jung-hwa brings to screen another iron-willed protagonist. But unlike her usual femme fatale parts, she pulls off a grittier role as Dong-suk, a single mother who delivers yogurt by day and cleans people's houses by night. She carries on with fortitude in order to save up, to travel the world with the 11-year-old son who has less than five years to live.

But when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer her reasons to go on are put to the test. Yet her young son, far wiser than his years, inspires her to hope again. The film finds magic in the pristine, naturalistic performances by child actor Lee Hyung-suk, who inspires not only his onscreen mother but viewers as well.

Heui-gyeong, played by charismatic musical actress Jeon Soo-kyung, is a star soprano that treats her daughter-cum-manager Eun-seong (Ryu Hyun-kyung) like a maid. It's a classic story about a child desperately scrambling to win her mother's attention and approval, and eventually turning to rebellious measures when she feels like she's failed.

Eun-seong blames her mother, or professor Park, as she prefers to be called, for having to give up her dreams of pursuing a career in "cheap" pop music. When she feels like she's had enough of her artist mother's diva hysteria, she decides to attend a TV singing competition even if it means hurting Heui-gyeong's reputation.

Last but not least, fiendishly talented actors Yoo Hae-jin ("Moss") and Kim Hae-sook ("Thirst") bring a funny, heartwarming appeal to what could otherwise have been a freakish case of Oedipus complex.

Seung-cheol (Yoo) is a gangster but is the most docile, devoted son at home and pretends to be an English teacher to make his mother Ok-ja happy. When Ok-ja must undergo surgery for breast cancer she refuses to compromise her womanly curves. In order to console her, Seung-cheol embarks on a mission to find the man she dated before marrying his abusive father.

In theaters June 2. Distributed by Lotte Entertainment.

Three out of four stars.

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