A nurse develops a special bond with a comatose patient awaiting a horrendous fate in Shin Su-won’s mystery-drama “Madonna,” an anguished cry against vicious class inequality and ingrained female abuse in South Korean society. Shot with the trappings of a taut hospital thriller before eventually revealing its humanist strain, the pic reflects the helmer-scribe’s strong social conscience and feminist stance, but the unremitting accumulation of suffering finally becomes too punishing even for audiences, leaving them with a sense of being drained rather than thoughtfully provoked. Shin’s personal style of outre atmospherics may give the pic some edge in European Asian-friendly arthouse niches.
A screenwriting major and former schoolteacher who made her late-blooming helming debut, “Passerby #3,” at the age of 43, Shin is a renegade filmmaker whose edgy blend of social critique and chilling genre elements — on display in her sophomore feature, “Pluto” — again finds its way into her third film. Boasting fewer twisty flourishes in the script, the yarn boasts a smoother segue from the macabre feel of the first half to human drama of the latter.
In “Pluto,” Shin created strong teenage female supporting roles in a male-dominated genre. Here, she places two adult women at the center of a narrative that has parallels with Tetsuya Nakashima’s “Memories of Matsuko” in its harrowing chronicle of a woman’s search for love and acceptance that borders on martyrdom. Her casting of Seo Young-hee, who received accolades for her role as victim of the most barbarous male oppression in “Bedevilled,” further cements the film’s femme-centric themes.
Moon Hye-rim (Seo), a single woman in her mid-30s, joins a private hospital in Seoul as an assistant nurse, and is appointed to the “VIP Ward.” Her charge is Kim Chul-oh, a tycoon and key benefactor to the hospital. For years the old patriarch’s been kept alive with tubes and a string of heart transplants at the behest of his haughty son, Sang-soo (Kim Young-min, “Hwayi: A Monster Boy”).
Korean cinema has a knack for visualizing institutions as corrupt and murderous lairs (see the concurrent Cannes midnight selection, “Office”; ditto “The Silenced”). Just as Shin imbued an elite school in “Pluto” with the creepy oppressiveness of a haunted dungeon, she casts a sinister, conspiratorial air on the exclusive hospital here, filled as it is with weird patients, horny nurses, classified medical records, clandestine rooms-within-rooms, and scandalous gossip whispered in and out of surgeries.
What goes on in the VIP wards reps a microcosm of outrageous social hierarchies in Korean society, from a lewd patient’s entitled demand for a blowjob from Moon, to the alternately supercilious and obsequious manners of nurses and doctors, depending on who they’re interacting with. The privileges of the rich and powerful reach a grotesque level when Kim Sr.’s transplant shows signs of failure, and his son seeks a replacement. His consultation with the doctor (Byun Yo-han) over sourcing organs from China’s black market or death row, as casual as a Craigslist order, demonstrates repulsive inhumanity.
Soon after, an additional patient (Kwon So-hyun), a comatose pregnant woman in her late 20s, is assigned to Moon’s care. Naturally curious about her murky identity, she is at first admonished not to ask any questions, then ordered by Kim Jr. to find the female patient Mi-na’s next of kin. As Moon looks up anyone with ties to her, she digs into a past of serial abuse, from being ostracized at childhood for her hair color and poverty to even worse degradation.
With her particular sensitivity to social injustice, which humanized the horror elements of “Pluto,” Shin again exposes harsh conditions of grassroots women at every stage in their lives, especially their socially conditioned subservience and insecurity. She draws an especially compelling image of Mi-na’s confused body image, as she almost proudly tells others she’s nicknamed “Madonna” for her big breasts. Her binge eating, slutty clothes and tendency to offer men fellatio the way mothers give babies pacifiers are all poignant signs of neediness. First-time actress Kwon gives a fearless performance as this hopelessly gullible yet survivalist anti-heroine, eliciting both pity and irritation. However, as the screenplay piles on the victimization, each more sexually violent than the next, her journey registers less as a downward spiral than as more of the same unpalatable dish.
Plotwise, even as Moon becomes increasingly protective of Mi-na and determined to alter her fate, no rapport develops, since the two never meet in waking life. As the film traces the stages of Mi-na’s life, she grows into a distinct persona, whereas Moon recedes as an observer. A blank slate to start with, the role gives Seo only so much room to maneuver; a revelatory flashback at the 100-minute mark, lacking in buildup, reinforces the two women’s physical parallels but doesn’t produce as much empathy as expected.
Craft contributions manifest Shin’s personal stylistic stamp, and are a marked upgrade from “Pluto.” Production designer Lee Shin-hye’s generous use of lurid primary colors, Yun Ji-woon’s gorgeous lensing and extensive use of silhouetting to cloak protags in palls of darkness, combine to form a mise-en-scene that hovers between fantasy and nightmare.