|A scene from “Miss Granny.” (CJ Entertainment)|
Filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk’s latest protagonist Oh Mal-soon (played by veteran actress Na Moon-hee) is the kind of old woman whom you don’t want to have as your mother-in-law.
She is shameless and controlling, complains about your food, and is not afraid to belittle you in front of your children. Mal-soon’s biggest pride is her son, who is a university professor, and that she managed to raise him by herself, against all odds.
The real story of the film, “Miss Granny,” begins with Mal-soon suddenly recovering her physical appearance of her 20s. Mal-soon renames herself Oh Du-ri (played impeccably by young actress Shim Eun-kyeong) after her all-time favorite actress Audrey Hepburn, and pursues a career in music ― something she had to give up when she was young. Although the fantasy comedy starts off with layered characters with real family and aging problems, Hwang only manages to create another conventional Korean tale about a sacrificing mother and her unconditional love.
Though Mal-soon sacrificed her “everything” ― including her personal happiness and most importantly, her “youth” ― for her son and his success, the film fails to deal with her problems in the present day.
Mal-soon is in fact a highly flawed character. Her defect is revealed early in the film when she betrays those who helped her in her earlier years, with the sole purpose of better supporting her son. She is also the main reason her clearly depressed, puffy-eyed daughter-in-law’s health suddenly worsens.
Before she regains her youth at a mysterious photo studio, Mal-soon was scheduled to be sent to a nursing home, as doctors strongly advised that her daughter-in-law needs to live away from her. In this movie, the daughter-in-law’s sufferings are undoubtedly realistic; she is constantly controlled and railed at by her mother-in-law, who rationalizes everything she does, including her betrayal in the past, in the name of her love for her son.
Du-ri is a younger, and arguably a much more pleasant version of Mal-soon, who still speaks with a regional accent and walks like an old lady. For most people, Du-ri acts very strangely and motherly for her age ― this is the main entertainment of the film ― but they find it amusing at the same time. And Du-ri sings very well. She joins a band led by her struggling teenage grandson, who does not recognize her, of course, and the group becomes famous. The rest of the movie is dedicated to showing what Mal-soon could’ve done and enjoyed if she didn’t give up her dream in order to raise her child. Everything Du-ri is capable of doing ― her musical talent and her physical beauty ― is what Mal-soon gradually lost while bringing up her son.
This film was created based on an assumption that a woman’s most beautiful days are during their 20s, and praises Mal-soon’s youth ― which only exists in her past. And Mal-soon’s sacrifice of her youth ― and physical beauty ― for the sake of her child, is highlighted to elicit gratitude from the audience in the end. It’s the conventional Korean rhetoric: “Your mother did all these things for you.”
The problem is, such a notion of “gratitude” prevents director Hwang from solving Mal-soon’s initial conflicts with her daughter-in-law, as well as those she betrayed in the past. The question is, Can all mothers’ deeds, whether ethical or not, be rationalized if they did them for their children?
The movie had its chance to answer, but chose not to. The result is another feel-good family movie that again praises a mother’s love and sacrifice.
A CJ Entertainment release, “Miss Granny” opens in theaters on Jan. 22.
By Claire Lee