Shin Su-won’s ‘Madonna’ will be remembered as my first big Cannes surprise, having totally caught me off-guard in the Un Certain Regard section.
My interest was piqued from the moment the haunting pianos kicked in as the lights fell and, despite some wrong turns, the breathless finale brought everything back on track.
Moon Hye-rim (Seo Young-hee) has just started a new job as a nurse’s hand in a South Korean hospital and we’re introduced to the establishment’s patients as she is. Most notably, Kim Cheol-oh (a.k.a The Chairman) who’s been comatose for a decade and is due for a second heart transplant to keep him going for as long as he can muster.
The Chairman’s slimy son finds a potential donor in the form of Mi-na, a brain-dead pregnant woman in the hospital, and sets Moon with the task of tracking down her next-of-kin to gather the necessary signature on the consent form.
And thus begins the central mystery: who exactly is this young woman and how did she end up slumped in a hospital bed 7-months pregnant? It’s a great central hook and we explore Mi-na's past in a series of flashbacks triggered by Moon’s findings. These sequences are revelatory and, while they can come across as slow, they’re purposeful and crammed full of character development.
But, be warned, the truth’s not exactly pretty. It seems that life of the streets for young Korean women is rife with abuse and sexual assault, which makes for some pretty tough viewing. It’s truly disconcerting at times and, while I feel Su-won just about gets away with the rape scenes, she veers dangerously close to descending into bad taste. At one point, I felt totally alienated by the overwhelming frequency of these scenes. But, the final fifteen minutes and the effective performances brought me back on board with the film entirely.
Suddenly, the film seemed to be drawing attention to the way these women are treated rather than just using it for the shock value. And, it wasn’t long before everything clicked into place. Su-won asks whether someone can be a weak woman, but a strong mother. The Madonna character often times seemed to encourage the abusive men in her life, but we come realise that that may have all been for the good of her child. She’s a woman desperate for acceptance; her only downfall is that she sees sexual favours as the only way of achieving that.
The central hour is unrelentingly grim and it won’t do any favours for the Korean tourist board, but ‘Madonna’ ultimately stands as a harrowing portrait of life on the streets in one of the most ‘modern’ cities in the world. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but give ‘Madonna’ a chance and you’ll be treated to a brutally raw piece of socially astute Asian filmmaking.