Should’ve Been a Contender: Kim Hye-ja for “Mother”

For this Awards Season we’re looking back at the films, the actors and the directors who should have been a contender for the Oscars. Here’s Caelyn O’Reilly’s piece on why Kim Hye-Ja should have been nominated for “Mother”.

By Caelyn O’Reilly

Non-English language performances are routinely overlooked by American and British film awards, the Academy Awards in particular. Only two women have ever won the Best Actress Oscar for non-English performances, Sofia Loren in “Two Women” and Marion Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose” (if you count various forms of sign language then the number does jump up slightly to five).

This particular representation issue has come up again this year as Bong Joon-ho‘s widely praised film “Parasite” received six nominations from the Academy – including Best Picture and Best Director – but was snubbed entirely from the acting categories, despite the praise the ensemble has received from critics and audiences. Most of Bong Joon-ho’s films are driven by large, ensemble casts. But in this “Should’ve Been a Contender” series, I’d like to submit one of his few films carried by one, singular woman at its centre; Kim Hye-ja in the 2009 murder-mystery/drama, “Mother”.

In a filmmaking landscape that prefers to reward big, theatrical performances that demand your attention, the realistic timidity and fear Kim Hye-ja displays in “Mother” stands out.

As the mother of a disabled teenage boy accused of murder, she radiates a palpable vulnerability that’s almost uncomfortable to watch at times, like you’re peeking in on the most private secrets of a stranger. Hye-ja displays the raw authenticity of Anna Magnani as her limits are tested to unsettling degrees in her desperate quest for the truth. In fact, the scene in which she runs after the car taking her son away reminds eerily of Magnani’s renowned and harrowing death scene in “Rome, Open City”.

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Hye-ja Kim in Madeo (2009)

In a filmmaking landscape that prefers to reward big, theatrical performances that demand your attention, the realistic timidity and fear Kim Hye-ja displays in “Mother” stands out. Her character in this film leads a seemingly small and simple life, and the world around her treats her as just that, small and simple. But she is slowly revealed to be anything but as her search grows more desperate and the people around her continue to demean and ignore her. That anxious surface hides a powerful trauma, revealed deftly by Hye-ja’s every word and gesture.

The determination in her every movement and line of dialogue is so captivating as to render her final, most extreme decisions in the narrative simply heart-crushing. Though I dare not spoil their nature. That is a revelation you should experience for yourself.

Kim Hye-ja in “Mother” is of those singularly unforgettable performances that should be held aloft and studied in its every facet like Vivien Leigh in “Gone With the Wind” or Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice”.

The behind-the-scenes featurettes reveal even more about her performance and method. One thing that stood out to me was how delightful and charming she was on set. Awards shows like The Oscars tend to value method acting to an extreme degree. People will lavish actors for breaking their foot during a take or losing a horrifying amount of weight for a role. They encourage this kind of harmful behaviour because they think it makes the performances more ‘real’. But there’s none of that baggage in “Mother”. The Academy loves to fawn over an actor going to obscene lengths to ‘transform’ into a role, but that wasn’t even a consideration for Hye-ja, “I don’t really think about transforming the character intentionally”. She just gave a great performance and had fun doing it.

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Hye-ja Kim in Madeo (2009)

Kim Hye-ja in “Mother” is of those singularly unforgettable performances that should be held aloft and studied in its every facet like Vivien Leigh in “Gone With the Wind” or Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice”. I fear it has gone largely overlooked by English-speakers thus far due to that language barrier. But it’s just as Bong Joon-ho said at the recent Golden Globes, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”, and so too will you be introduced to the incredible work of Kim Hye-ja.

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