In a world where tepid films filled with ignorant goodwill (such as The Blind Side) are being celebrated with nominations for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and the nominees for Best Actress remain widely xenophobic, cinephiles must actively seek out interesting international films that star women, particularly real, interesting women over the age of 40, to get a true picture of what the climate is like for women in contemporary cinema. While there are major strides and power plays being made by English-language actresses like Sandra Bullock, Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep, the best roles for mature women are still being most actively realized outside of the conventional American-centric systems of film making.
Recently, to highlight the opportunities for actresses whose native tongue is other than English, there has been a spate of interesting, intelligent star vehicles for mature female performers that don’t necessarily bring in major box office receipts, but manage to dazzle with their originality, nonetheless. Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (Argentina), Sebastien Silva’s The Maid (Chile), Martin Provost’s Seraphine (France) and Cyrus Nowrasteh’s The Stoning of Soraya M. (Iran), have all purposefully centered around the dramatic action created by unique leading ladies.
Bin Won, Ku Jin, Hye-ja Kim
(Magnolia; US theatrical: 12 Mar 2010; 2009)
These films become important because they challenge convention and offer dynamic starring roles to the women acting in them, but also a chance for audiences to get a taste of what it is like for women in off-the-beaten path, unusual cinematic locales. It’s no surprise that these films, all featuring protagonists well over the age of 40, have all gone on to great international critical acclaim, as each highlights a singularly female experience that had not yet been portrayed for the screen.
Surfing on the crest of a new global wave of feminism generated by the splash of a celebrated new generation of auteurs is Bong Joon-ho, who made 2007’s The Host. The director of one of Korea’s most financially successful films of all time shines a spotlight on a singular older woman with his daring detective story Mother, and proves that Korea is fast becoming a hot spot for interesting female film performances.
Part noir thriller, part classic, melodramatic soap opera, the film’s narrative is propelled by the actions of “Mother”, played brilliantly by Kim Hye-ja, a staple of Korean acting who happens to be in her mid-60s. “I cannot think of a better role model for an actor,” said actor Won Bin, who plays her son. “Every day on the set was so joyful, full of excitement and adventure.”“Mother” must become a detective in order to clear her naïve son Do-joon, who has been charged with the murder of a local young woman.
The premise is simple, yet the dramatic consequences are fraught with an intricate emotional complexity that few actresses of Kim Hye-ja’s age group playing archetypal mothers, English speaking or not, are actually allowed to play. “I had been away from the film industry in recent years because, let’s be honest, there weren’t good new roles written for someone like me,” said Kim.”What they were sending me was the same old stuff. But Mother… was quite different.”
While directors beyond America’s borders are crafting stories that defy preconceptions about maternal love and challenging audiences’ perceptions about the role of older women in genre films, the Academy is handing out Oscars to people like Bullock and women over 40 who play mothers that are still relegated to the sidelines of the real action. Most of the time they are given very little to do other than represent the ultimate nurturer, the saint, and sweetly embody the impossible ideals of 20th century motherhood.
To Bong’s credit, Mother takes a firm step in a bold new direction, where a mom can be flawed, honest, funny, scary, traditional and innovative. These expertly-drawn contradictions sketched by the director conspire to make “Mother” one of the most amazingly well-rounded female characters in recent memory, especially when coupled with Kim Hye-ja’s ferociously committed performance that physically embodies all of these characteristics.
“I asked Bong to push me to the extreme,” said his leading lady. “He was only happy to oblige! On the first shoot we did eighteen takes, some kind of a record for me, and by the seventeenth take I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I am ruining this movie!’ And it was like that for five months.”