True Mothers (2020)

Kawase’s naturalistic and graceful filmmaking is there for all to see, but she doesn’t quite pull off successfully an oddly-structured work about the sometimes fateful circumstances surrounding mothers and babies. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Review #2,310

Dir. Naomi Kawase
2020 | Japan | Drama | 140 mins | 1.85:1 | Japanese
NC16 (passed clean) for sexual scene

Cast: Hiromi Nagasaku, Arata Iura, Aju Makita, Reo Sato, Hiroko Nakajima
Plot: A woman with an adopted child is contacted unexpectedly by the child’s birth mother.
Awards: Official Selection (Toronto)
International Sales: Playtime

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Mothers and Children; Adoption
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Screener
Spoilers: No

This is only my second Naomi Kawase film after The Mourning Forest (2007).  It isn’t a terrific work, but it should draw an audience hoping for more of the Japanese director’s naturalistic and graceful filmmaking. 

A quick scan of its premise might suggest that True Mothers would make an appropriate double-bill with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s superior Like Father, Like Son (2013), but while they share similar themes of parenthood in the context of biological and non-biological parenting, here the focus is on mothers and their children. 

In some way, Kawase wants us to think of ‘true mothers’ as not just simply biological or non-biological, but all the mothers who have had (and would-be mothers who did not have) the chance to bear a child, biological or otherwise. 

By structuring the film as a story about two women—one married who is infertile, and the other facing the ignominy of a teenage pregnancy—Kawase develops two intersecting narrative threads that for some reason don’t quite amount to anything remotely powerful. 

“I’ll never forget we watched the sunset together.”

Perhaps structurally, the execution is rather odd and not nearly as intersectional as one might expect—we get extended segments on one of the two women and then the narrative switches to the other for another prolonged period. 

Granted this helps substantially in the development of these characters who are wonderfully realised as human beings working around their fateful circumstances, yet the film doesn’t hit all the right notes, particularly where it matters at the end. 

Kawase’s lightness of touch and delicate filmmaking, including frequent shots of nature and some moments of documentary-esque scenes (most notably in several trips to an island where a modest social initiative resides that helps those who can’t raise their child connect with those who are desperate for one) do give the film a sense of airiness, that there’s always a silver lining in the clouds.

Grade: B-



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