The Movie Waffler New to VOD - TRUE MOTHERS | The Movie Waffler


true mothers review
An adopted child's mother demands his parents return the boy to her care.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Naomi Kawase

Starring: Hiromi Nagasaku, Arata Iura, Aju Makita, Reo Sato, Hiroko Nakajima, Tetsu Hirahara, Ren Komai, Taketo Tanaka

Japanese cinema, and indeed East Asian cinema as a whole, has long displayed an ability to tug at the heartstrings without indulging in the sort of crass sentimentality often found in western melodrama. Filmmakers from Ozu to Koreeda are aware that the most touching human truths are found in the most low key moments. Naomi Kawase's 2015 film Sweet Bean is a perfect example of this, a tender drama that will have you reaching for the Kleenex without ever resorting to any kind of emotional grandstanding.

Kawase's latest, True Mothers, has some of the small moments of wisdom you expect from a top Japanese filmmaker, but it's also infected by a western brand of schmaltz, as though Kawase is auditioning for a future foray into English language filmmaking and wants to prove she can be as direct as any emotionally uncouth American director.

The film sprawls across two timelines, initially introducing us to the present day life of married couple Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura). Their seemingly content middle class life is disrupted by a phone call from a young girl claiming to be Hikari (Aju Makita), the birth mother of their adopted son Asoto (Reo Satō). The girl demands that either her son is given back to her care or she will demand money to maintain her silence about the adoption. Satoko and Kiyokazu call her bluff and arrange for a meeting, but when they meet the girl, who resembles a bedraggled street urchin, they doubt that this is the real Hikari.

Thus begins an extended flashback detailing Hikari's pregnancy at age 14, when she is shuffled off to 'Baby Baton', an adoption agency that takes in young pregnant girls who don't want to become mothers and passes on their progeny to willing adoptees. After handing over the infant Asoto, Hikari struggles to adjust back to her home life, eventually running away and returning to Baby Baton where she works until it is closed down and she finds herself living alone in the big city, contending with various hardships.

True Mothers is the very definition of a "weepie", or what was once known as a "woman's picture." It's a melodrama that works best when it's being mellow, not so much when it's overly dramatic. In newcomer Makita, Kawase has unearthed an actress of remarkable talent, and her performance anchors True Mothers, keeping us invested even when it's rambling off into unnecessary subplots. And boy are there a few of those. At 140 minutes, True Mothers is in dire need of some pruning. Do we really need the 30 minutes of flashback devoted to Satoko and Kiyokazu facing their inability to have a child of their own and stumbling across Baby Baton (which, in a particularly crude piece of storytelling, they find while flicking through TV channels)? Do we really need the appearance of a pair of scary Yakuza who demand money from Hikari? Do we really need, on top of all the other misery, an emotionally manipulative monologue from a side character about his girlfriend's suicide?

Were True Mothers less concerned with being an epic melodrama and more invested in the story of Hikari, it might be one of the best Japanese dramas of recent years. There are moments of humanity between Hikari and various characters that will give you a warm glow, and equally moments of horror that will have you wishing you could reach into the screen and give her a reassuring hug. Kawase's filmmaking is powerful in bursts, but those bursts are mired in a sprawling film that often feels like it's searching for its narrative centre. By the end you may have gone through a hanky or two, yet you'll feel a little manipulated, a little exasperated, but perhaps a little enlightened regarding the women often left behind in the adoption process.

True Mothers
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.