Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Madonna, directed by Shin Su-Won
"This gloomy film certainly has the power of its rage and anguish, but it could have used some restraint too." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Director Shin Su-won’s Madonna is an unrelentingly miserable and brutal piece of work, a grey and cold film that keeps its characters trapped in various South Korean institutions which, be they workplaces or sanctuaries, merely conceal exploitation, misogyny and violence. This is in keeping with the director’s earlier work, Pluto, which portrayed a school system that had descended into a fresh kind of hell. Admirable to a certain extent in its willingness to pick at the scab of male-female relations, and to expose the levels of suffering women can experience in what should be the nicer of the two Koreas, Shin’s Madonna nevertheless starts to feel heavy-handed and one-note by the end.

The Madonna of the title is a pregnant but comatose Jane Doe (Kwon So-hyun), who is dropped off at a privately-funded VIP hospital with little evidence as to her backstory. She comes under the care of new nurse Moon Hye-rim (Seo Young-hee), a shy, withdrawn type who clearly has a mysterious past of her own. We are soon left in no doubt that this hospital is not a place of sanctuary for Madonna though, as Moon is briefed by other nurses that the facility revolves around the wishes of its primary financier, the Chairman Kim Chul-oh, who is himself dying in the most expensive ward of heart failure. Things get more twisted when his coldly sadistic son Sang-soo, dependent on keeping the old man alive so as to be able to continue to pilfer his wealth, demands the brain-dead Madonna be used as a transplant patient.

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Despite all this abuse of power, Moon diligently carries out her task of uncovering Madonna’s history, though as she discovers the extent to which the poor woman’s life was just a lifelong string of personal and professional humiliations - including repeated rapes, body shaming and prostitution - her own moral compass starts to get shaken up. Flesh and the fragile human body are under the microscope, much of Madonna’s suffering stemming from a patriarchal society’s cruel boundaries in terms of what is acceptable both in terms of beauty and of a woman’s right to not be abused and to seek redress. Madonna’s full figure is quoted by the various people who tormented her in her past either as a justified source of their twisted sexual fascination, or as a source of disgust. Body horror elements also come into play, given that what will happen to Madonna in the present day essentially will involve an unauthorised transplant while she is pregnant, with a cowed Moon coerced into gaining a signature from Moon’s dementia-addled grandmother.

The film is trying to set itself up as a polemic against exploitation and the stratification of society’s old power structures, but despite some striking moments (particularly in the way the operations of the creepy hospital are laid out, with patients demanding blowjobs and staff actually kneeling to the Chairman’s son), it lays the misery on so heavily it undoes much of the good work. It also doesn't help that the concept itself is inherently absurd, this must be the most unregulated hospital in the nation; why does no one think to report the Chairman’s son to the police given he is essentially ordering a murder? A revelation about Moon’s past, and why she feels indebted in some way to Madonna, is contrived and odd, delivered in the last minutes. This gloomy film certainly has the power of its rage and anguish, but it could have used some restraint too.

Reviewed on: 28 Oct 2015
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When a Jane Doe is marked for heart transplant a nurse tries to find out about her life.

Director: Shin Su-won

Writer: Shin Su-won

Starring: Seo Young-Hee, Byun Yo-han

Year: 2015

Runtime: 121 minutes

Country: South Korea

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