An intriguing premise and a versatile performance by Jeon Do-yeon (as both mom and daughter) don’t quite go the distance in “My Mother the Mermaid,” in which a young woman literally comes face to face with her past. Recalling both the time-bending yarns popular in Korean cinema a few years ago, as well as rural-set pics of the ’60s, film will appeal to Jeon’s specialized fanbase but requires re-working in its midsection to swim with wider auds. Locally, pic performed only so-so this summer, but some exposure at Asia-friendly fests is indicated.
Postal worker Kim Na-yeong (Jeon), in her mid-20s, is about to go on a dream trip to New Zealand when her penniless failure of a father, Jin-guk (Kim Bong-geun), goes AWOL one day. Leaving behind her rough, country-bred mom, Jo Yeon-sun (Go Du-shim), Na-yeong sets off in search of him in her parents’ village, on an island where her mom was once a diving girl.
With a disarming lack of fanfare, pic pulls its main stunt, as Na-yeong arrives at her ancestral home, meeting her own mother in her mid-20s (also Jeon). Calmly welcomed into the simple household, which also includes Na-yeong’s uncle as a bratty kid, Na-yeong becomes a witness to her mom’s romance with a youthful, handsome Jin-guk (Park Hae-il, from “Jealousy Is My Middle Name”), the village postman.
Simple story about a young woman visiting her past to understand her parents better provides an acting showcase for Jeon, who manages here to outdo even her own rep for chameleon performances (“Happy End,” “No Blood No Tears,” “Untold Scandal”). Helmer Park Heung-shik previously worked with her in the underrated, offbeat romancer, “I Wish I Had a Wife Too” (2001), and there’s a tangible trust between director and star that works to the movie’s benefit, with the 31-year-old actress clearly having a ball in the mother role.
Similar to German thesp Franka Potente’s striking turn as mom and daughter in cloning drama “Blueprint” (2004), Jeon delineates the two characters with sheer acting smarts rather than relying on much camera trickery. There are times when the viewer almost forgets it’s the same actress, with the forthright, pigtailed young Yeon-sun a million miles from the city-raised, mother-dominated Na-yeong.
It’s in the middle-section that the film marks time, becoming a conventional pastoral romance in which the bland Park, as the young father, sheds little light on his modern character. At its heart, “Mermaid” is a mother-daughter yarn, and Jeon’s perf is neatly balanced by veteran Go’s less showy playing as the ornery, disillusioned, modern-day mother.
Technically, picture is smooth at all levels, with the period scenes nicely balanced between naturalism and idealism.