Monday 1 June 2009

Princess Aurora (2005)

Director: Bang Eun-jin
Stars: Eom Jung-hwa and Mun Sung-kun

I'll take any opportunity to watch a Korean movie I can find nowadays, though I hear that what has been something of a golden age may be ending. This 2005 film from director/co-writer Bang Eun-jin (better known as an actress) begins strongly but strangely, with the vicious murder of an abusive stepmother in a shopping centre bathroom. The strengths are obvious: style and substance. What's strange is that we see precisely whodunit; what's more, it only takes a couple of minutes before we find out her name and occupation: Jung Soon-jung, an imported car saleswoman.

Of course this isn't an isolated event. The murders soon add up, such as a real bitch of a young lady during a facial and her rich married boyfriend in his own wedding chapel. The cops know that these are all connected, because the murderess leaves a sticker at the scene of each murder, a sticker of a children's cartoon character called Princess Aurora. Of course we know they're all connected, because we see them all perpetrated by the same woman, so have something else to work out: is this a murder mystery that has no mystery or something that goes well beyond a murder mystery.

Luckily this one leans towards the latter. The something else is the fact that Jung is the ex-wife of the lead investigator on the case, Oh Sung-ho. She's also the mother of their daughter Min-ah, a girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered at the age of six. But why would she start killing people now, especially given that Min-ah's murderer was caught, why these particular people in these particular ways and why would she flaunt it all in front of the one person she knows can catch her?

It's these questions that keep us watching, rather than the usual one of whodunit. We know precisely whodunit, we just don't know anything else and we have to wait for the story to let us in on the details. Eom Jung-hwa is excellent as Jung, alternating between a kind and sympathetic young lady and an utterly psychotic animal taking on the personality of her dead daughter. Mun Sung-kun isn't bad either as her ex-husband, a cop training to be a priest. How's this setup for a challenge to the presence of God?

At the end of the day this is an effective character study, however many questions it leaves unanswered as a crime thriller. I say unanswered, but they all are answered, merely in an explanatory dream sequence once the main thrust of the story is done and dusted. And here's where I find myself unable to really decide between two competing judgements on the film, because this last twenty minutes is polarising and I think speaks very clearly and strongly to the mothers in the audience.

The male half of my brain has respect for a film that cares enough to tie up its loose ends while being a little frustrated that it all had to be tacked onto the end in a sort of afterthought instead of being woven into the main body of the piece, touching and poignant certainly but clumsy too. However the female half of my brain thinks back through it all and wonders if there was really any other way to play the game. This visualisation of the entire back story answers in one fell swoop all the questions that the rest of the film spent time and effort building up in our minds and sets up one last superb twist.

And I have to end up leaning towards the latter. The point is that this isn't really a psychological drama or a police thriller, but only at the finale do we realise this. It's a horror story for mothers, and this dream sequence is utterly definitive as a mother's worst nightmare come true. While the guys in the audience leave the theatre disappointed or maybe just a little blah, I have a feeling that the mothers in the audience were standing in their seats applauding a woman who had broken the law in horrific ways to do what she as a mother had to do. Kudos to Bang Eun-jin for crafting a very feminine take on a masculine genre without once pandering to Hallmark mentality. No, this couldn't be shown on the Lifetime channel.

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