New for me
It's pretty obvious from the title, Mother Is a Whore, that this film would turn out to be pretty bleak. I picked it up on a whim, considering its positive reception by film festivals around the world and while the film surprised me by not starting out in a pit of despair as I'd feared, the film does lumber towards that inevitable end. But the contrasting portrayals of family life and subverting of audience expectations results in a rather interesting view, although the film seems to be unable to come up with a strong resolution in the film act and comes off the rails just a little, undermining its potential a little.
In the film, Sangwoo (writer-director-star Lee Sangwoo, not the same as the director of A Little Pond) is first spotted taking a young man with cerebral palsy to have sex with his mother (Lee Yongnyeo) for a little money as the "cheapest whore in town". And we find that his profession is a pimp, his one girl happens to be his mother, whom he lives with in a tiny shack outside the town and clearly business isn't great. Hanging around Sangwoo is a young male admirer as well as his similarly admiring stepsister, Heesoo (Yoo Aekyung). Heesoo is his stepsister via his father (Kwon Bumtaek), who recently married Heesoo's mother, a devout church-going lady. Heesoo clearly dislikes her new stepfather and has largely taken sole role of taking care of her extremely reclusive younger brother, who never leaves his room. And while Sangwoo plays the part of the pimp as best he can, as the movie goes on, it's clear that his relationship with his mother isn't an entirely exploitative one and while their situation is desperate, their relationship isn't sour. And we also discover the depths of depravity that exist within Heesoo's household. And, as expected, all this takes a turn for the worse.
What works very well with this piece is that the film manages to make its protagonist sympathetic and furthermore upend expectations as to what happens in both of the major households in the film. This complexity and limited warmth in the relationship between Sangwoo and his mother is the kind of portrayal, combined with some black humor early on, gives Mother Is a Whore a strong place from which to also draw the contrasting narrative, which predictably spirals worse and worse. Unfortunately, that same spiral causes the film to wander a little in the final act and the film settles on a rather grim finale, which seems like Lee Sangwoo ran out of ideas on how to close out his film as the film's tone shifts to a rather predictable end, which in some ways undoes the initial, and interesting, complexity of the film. Not to mention that the ending of the film simply doesn't make a whole lot of sense given the preceding events.
One thing that's instantly impressive is the production values of this Korean indie film, looking fairly professional in presentation, even featuring rather well done soundtrack. Lee doesn't play too much outside the normal presentation of narrative, sticking closely to his characters, with the exception of the final scene, which skews a bit from the reality that he presents. Carrying the film on his back, Lee also does a fine job as an actor and the overall turn reminds me of a similar actor driven project, Breathless, but even as this film spirals bleak like the other, Lee doesn't seem to keep the tonal reality consistent leading to dissonance at the end. Fortunately, the other performers were pretty solid too, but I don't know if it's enough to make up for the disappointing ending.
Mother Is a Whore is still pretty interesting and will likely meaningfully find support from supporters of indie cinema, who will likely appreciate the subversion of expectations that the film presents, from the contrasting familial setups to the complex character relationships and the film's ability to start in a place that there is a place downward to go. Unfortunately, as the film finally reaches its climax, it becomes somewhat clear that Lee didn't quite have a grasp on the finale of the film in a way that incorporates some kind of resolution to his story, the current result seeming like the story wasn't really heading towards a known conclusion. Still, for its play with convention and expectation as well as its interesting character portraits, I would still think that more indie/art cinema inclined viewers will find something to appreciate here. 7/10.