The title may be “Daughter,” but it’s a tiger mom for the ages who holds the spotlight in this seething domestic horror film about a young girl’s deeply unhappy childhood. Centered around a memorably scary turn from Shim Hye-jin that may remind viewers of “Carrie,” “Black Swan” and other scream-worthy portraits of deranged motherhood, South Korean writer-director-actress Ku Hye-sun’s third feature can feel a tad mechanical and one-note in its abrupt temporal shifts, revealing how past emotional and psychological wounds continue to throb in the present. But that one note is undeniably gripping, lending this sustained banshee howl of a movie an almost demonic intensity for much of its taut 82-minute running time. Following its Busan world premiere, additional festival dates beckon.
San (Ku) has just found out she’s pregnant, a discovery that fills her with less joy than unease as she heads to the hospital to visit her terminally ill mother (Shim), whom she hasn’t seen in quite some time. Lengthy flashbacks to San’s early adolescence (in which she’s played by Hyun Seung-min) soon make clear why, as we become intimately acquainted with the never-ending nightmare of living under her mother’s thumb. On a good day, San gets home promptly from school, where her mother proceeds to scrub her (hard), criticizes her poor manners at the dinner table, and threatens her if she doesn’t get perfect marks on her homework. On a bad day, these regular rituals are accompanied by shrill, relentless verbal invective — “Shut up, you fucking bitch!” seems to be Mom’s favorite insult — and, inevitably, physical violence.
In painting the mother character in broad, immediately familiar brushstrokes, Ku appears to have made a close study of Piper Laurie’s legendary performance in “Carrie.” There are comparable if less vivid traces of religious fanaticism in the way this Mommie Dearest mutters the Lord’s Prayer at home (and later clutches a rosary on her deathbed), and her primary fear seems to be that her daughter will one day begin to explore and take full possession of her sexuality. Still, she represents an improvement on Margaret White in at least one respect: When San has her first period, her mother cheerfully welcomes her to the world of womanhood, hands her a sanitary napkin and walks away, in perhaps the only scene here played even remotely for laughs.
San’s life, while unenviably grim, is not without its glimmers of hope. She’s shy but well liked at school, and she soon catches the eye of a male student (Yang Hyun-mo), although it’s clear their flirtation will be short-lived if San’s mother has anything to say about it. Providing the most meaningful outside influence is a kindly next-door neighbor (Yoon Da-kyung) who immediately recognizes what’s going on, and who reaches out by offering San piano lessons. Instinctively aware of how to draw certain protective boundaries around the girl, without ever becoming confrontational or dropping her neighborly civility, the piano teacher becomes both a positive role model and a sort of fairy-godmother figure, in counterpoint to Mom’s towering Gorgon.
Ku’s neatly structured screenplay keeps the story moving on two parallel fronts while finding logical transition points between time frames; a painful word uttered in the present can send San’s mind racing back into the past. Yet for all its awareness of the persistent aftereffects of child abuse, “Daughter” is far from hopeless about its protagonist’s future: Whatever traumas San has sustained, she’s grown into a strong, tough-minded young woman, fully capable of making her own life choices and standing up to the mother who once terrified her. Yet as Ku’s deeply sympathetic performance makes clear, San’s feelings toward her mother remain an unresolved morass of love and hatred — and this, the film suggests, is to some extent a legacy that all mothers and daughters share. (And some fathers and daughters, too, as suggested by one scene that smacks of narrative overreach.)
At any point, our view of the mother is limited almost entirely to San’s perspective, a tactic that gets maximum tension out of Shim’s increasingly unhinged performance, even as it cries out for a deeper, more conflicted understanding of this cruel, broken woman and the experiences that brought her to this point. Absent this layer, her behavior is shocking but never particularly surprising; it becomes a foregone conclusion that she will react with over-the-top fury to every perceived slight or mistake on San’s behalf. Still, the spectacle of mother and daughter squaring off in close quarters is an impossible one to turn away from, with credit due not only to Shim’s ferocious intensity but also to Hyun’s tremulous turn as a frightened, long-suffering young girl gradually tapping into her capacity for defiance. (The lack of physical resemblance between Ku and Hyun is a minor flaw, but both actresses are aces.)
Tech credits are serviceably low-budget. The digital lensing is effective if rarely more than televisual in approach, getting the job done with minimal fuss; context-appropriate snatches of Bach, Chopin and Ravel accompany Choi In-young’s supportive score.