You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Busan Film Review: ‘Daughter’

Ku Hye-sun's third feature is a potent brew of maternal madness.

Shim Hye-jin, Ku Hye-sun, Hyun Seung-min, Yoon Da-kyung, Lee Hae-woo, Yang Hyun-mo.

Official Site: http://www.biff.kr/eng/html/program/prog_view.asp?idx=11720&c_idx=98&sp_idx=289&QueryStep=2

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.

Busan Film Review: 'Daughter'

Reviewed at Busan Film Festival (Korean Cinema Today), Oct. 9, 2014. Running time: 82 MIN.

Production: (South Korea) A Yes Prods. production. (International sales: M-Line Distribution, Seoul.) Produced by Song Gui-yong, Choi Seo-young. Executive producer, Choi.

Crew: Directed, written by Ku Hye-sun. Camera (color, widescreen), Yoon Ju-hwan; editor, Hyun Jung-hoon; music, Choi In-young; production designer, Park Lee-kyu; costume designer, Choi Seo-jin; sound, Yoon Sung-ki; sound designer, Kim Ji-eun; visual effects supervisor, Moon Byung-yong; visual effects, UFO SDL; line producer, Yoon Sung-jae; assistant director, Doo Kyung-hoon.

With: Shim Hye-jin, Ku Hye-sun, Hyun Seung-min, Yoon Da-kyung, Lee Hae-woo, Yang Hyun-mo.

More Film

  • UGC Distribution Closes on Mariano Cohn’s

    Ventana Sur: UGC Distribution Closes Market Hit ‘4 x 4’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    BUENOS AIRES — UGC Distribution has beaten out all other suitors to clinch what had became by Friday morning the most anticipated deal of this year’s Ventana Sur market: All rights to France on Argentine Mariano Cohn’s “4 x 4,” sold by Latido Films and distributed throughout Argentina by Disney. After mounting speculation about which [...]

  • Aquaman 2018

    Film News Roundup: 'Aquaman' Hits $152 Million at International Box Office

    In today’s film news roundup, “Aquaman” has already grossed more than $150 million outside the U.S., Michael Masini joins “Birds of Prey,” and Freestyle buys the documentary “Shamanic Trekker.” BOX OFFICE More Reviews Tallinn Film Review: 'Winter's Night' TV Review: 'Vanity Fair' Warner Bros.’ tentpole “Aquaman” has taken in $152 million overseas in 36 markets, [...]

  • 'Winter's Night' Review: Enigmatic, Offbeat Korean

    Tallinn Film Review: 'Winter's Night'

    There are thousands of films about love’s beginning, and a great many about love’s end. But far fewer deal with a relationship’s late-middle: the spreading, sluggish delta of coupledom when decades of familiarity, if they have not bred contempt, at least threaten irritation. “Winter’s Night,” Jang Woo-jin’s playfully melancholic third feature, after the acclaimed “A [...]

  • Tomasz Kot UTA

    UTA Signs ‘Cold War’ Star Tomasz Kot (EXCLUSIVE)

    UTA has signed “Cold War” star Tomasz Kot. He has appeared in more than 30 films and 26 plays as well as dozens of television series. More Reviews Tallinn Film Review: 'Winter's Night' TV Review: 'Vanity Fair' Most recently, Kot has received award-season buzz for his starring role as Wiktor in Pawel Pawlikowski’s feature “Cold [...]

  • Kenneth Branagh's 'All Is True' Opening

    Kenneth Branagh's 'All Is True' Opening Palm Springs Film Festival

    The 30th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival will open on Jan. 3 with historical drama “All Is True,” starring Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, and Ian McKellen. Branagh, who will be in attendance at the opening night screening, directed from Ben Elton’s script about the little-known period in the final years of William Shakespeare. Branagh [...]

  • Actor and Activist Rodney Kageyama Dies

    Actor and Activist Rodney Kageyama Dies at 77

    Actor, activist and influentials member of the Japanese American community, Rodney Kageyama, died in his sleep Dec. 9. He was 77. The SAG member was known for roles in “Karate Kid IV” with Hillary Swank, Ron Howard’s film “Gung Ho” and the spinoff sitcom, and the TV movie “Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes” with Max [...]

  • Most Popular Films 2018: The Best

    9 Holiday Gift Ideas Inspired by This Year's Most Popular Films

    From superheroes to super nannies, 2018 was a year full of memorable characters — and memorable movies. Whether you’re a big film buff, an avid follower of a popular franchise, or have a couple movie fans in your life, here are nine gifts that capture the fun of some of this year’s biggest films. 1. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content