Review of Mother/Mazâ (2020)

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Netflix has become a larger venue of releasing films outside of theaters. More recently, that has included I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, one of my favorites of the year thus far. This has also given window to a number of Netflix exclusive films to come out with a bit more attention to them, including this one, titled Mother and directed by Tatsushi Ohmori. Given how the year has shaped up, it’s been a prime window for films to get an online release and receive plenty of attention, so how does this hold up?

Let’s begin by making a few observations: it’s already a bit difficult to find information on this film simply because of its name. Among other series and movies that contain “Mother” in its title include How I Met Your Mother, Bong Joon Ho’s 2009 great Mother, and of course Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 darling Mother!. When your named contemporaries are all either critical or audience darlings, there is a certain expectation of quality carried with the naming convention, having the exposure will help but it also carries over a bit of critical hope, in a way. Whether that’s fair or not is up to the individual to decide, but regardless, you do not want your film to be known as “the least good Mother”. Unfortunately for Ohmori, his work will likely be known as “the least good Mother”, which is a shame because it begins with such a good premise.

Unlike the iMDb page which spoils basically the entire plot in the description, I will only point out the basics of the plot: a woman with a young son (implied to be 10 or so) wants to live a carefree life, devoid of responsibility and full of vices. From an early age, this boy sees his mother derelict and acting wholly irresponsibly, never even attempting to find work and spending the majority of her days gambling and playing pachinko. It’s clear that she is living off the generosity of others, owing large sums of money to her direct family and unable to pay for hot water once she gambles away their money. Akiko, the mother, wastes all of her chances to reinvent herself and uses everyone around her, especially a man named Ryo, to survive with her lifestyle and addiction. She is herself abused by various men, and she turns that abuse upon her son Shuhei, though she largely does not physically abuse him- she continually denigrates him and dehumanizes him, making it clear he is a tool for her that she is “obligated” to feed and “care” for.

Now, I just wrote a blog post a few days ago about how to construct a meaningful drama, and I entirely focused on character flaws. Part of the reason I made room in my schedule this week to watch this film was because of that very line of thought, because both Akiko and Shuhei are clearly characters with deliberate flaws. The fact they are in abusive environments draws out those flaws and has them behave in ways that can be interesting to study and watch, but this movie never quite delivers on that expectation of drama. Indeed, while the film is titled “Mother”, her role is much more supporting that lead, even with Masami Nagasawa in the part. She’s utterly integral to the plot, yes, but in a way she’s much more of an antagonist than protagonist. One of the good pieces of drama this film actually does deliver on is the concept of role switching, when she is either friend or foe depending on what the scene calls for. Her character is manipulative, deceitful, and emotionally barbaric, but she’s not entirely without love nor is she someone lacking complete empathy.

At multiple points, we are able to see the effect of her gambling addiction and its power over her. In fact, that addiction and its cycles is reinforced throughout the duration of the film, including her relationship with men. As she struggles to stay alive on the streets with Shuhei (and, eventually, Fuyuka), she has multiple relationships with men for various favors or money. That cycle repeats because it serves her basic needs, and she is unable to break from it despite the ramifications it has on her immediate family.

However, things fall apart rather quickly in regards to quality. It’s immediately apparent that there was a limited budget for this film, as the camera quality is distractingly poor throughout the duration of the movie. Tons of handicam is used seemingly at random, despite there being a plethora of great smooth transitions and camerawork clearly done on a track or stationary rig at other points. Frequently, there is a clashing of tone with the camera position, and it is a disservice to what’s being shown on screen. There are times where the handicam makes sense despite a lack of intense action, but then it seems there are points where it was used because it was the only way to achieve a particular angle on set that day. Running at over 2 hours long, this film also just… plods on and on and on. I mentioned repetition being integral to the plot, but most of the scenes showing that repetition just run for too long. It does not help to establish a sense of tone having Shuhei sit outside a door for literal minutes listening to her mother have sensual conversations, or simply sitting quietly at an underpass before being approached by people. At multiple points during the movie, I almost audibly stated “I get it, please move on” because the film is so slowly paced. I utterly love atmosphere, but there is a lack of atmosphere in a third of the movie and instead it simply drags.

The three main actors in the film all deliver solid performances, as two actors are cast for Shuhei at differing ages: Sho Gunji as child Shuhei, and Daiken Okudaira as teenage Shuhei. Both deliver performances that are not fantastic, but certainly fit the mood of his character in that Shuhei is emotionally stunted but carries a deep emotional weight, something that especially Okudaira encompasses in his body language, posture, and vocal delivery. As mentioned, Masami Nagasawa performs well as Akiko Misumi, but there are times where her character seems to simply become too vapid and unbelievable. I’m not sure if that’s something Nagasawa would be able to fix in terms of acting performance or if it’s a fault of the writing (which is what I’m more inclined to believe is the problem). Most of the other cast is largely forgettable, especially the parents of Akiko, both of whom overact and behave more like caricatures than real people. The same can be said of Sadao Abe who plays Ryo Kawata, who especially overacts when he’s being physically abusive, producing extremely large swings and broad gestures with kicking or grabbing hair that looks cartoonish.

I want to place this separately because it’s central to something that certain reviewers seem to “love” about this film, but is actually something I regard as a massive flaw: the ending. You want your drama to end on a large note, but the plan for Shuhei to murder his grandparents simply makes no sense in the context of this film. If it’s to allegedly rob them and get their money, that plan falls apart extremely quickly as Akiko doesn’t even have a chance to spend it before Shuhei is apprehended, nor is it an amount that can cover the cost of trying to “save” Ryo from his debt collectors. Shuhei even seems to be aware of this, as his actions by taking money from a safe from his employer and giving it to his mother indicate. If it’s to collect on a potential life insurance, it would have to be known that she was disowned by her parents, something that Shuhei would know because of the previous time he had seen them. And if Shuhei knew that, then the dialogue with Aya (a social worker who had found them housing for the homeless earlier in the film) about how he loves his mother then no longer makes sense. In what’s supposed to be this large, emotional climax, instead it just answers nothing for what feels like a cheap “gotcha” moment about the motivations of senseless dedication of Shuhei to his abusive mother. Akiko’s expression for the final shot doesn’t even appear to acknowledge this potential, either, as she remains motionless on the floor after losing her kids, still maintaining she should be able to do as she pleases with her own children. Nothing about the end makes sense if you think about it, not logically nor emotionally. If the theme was even some nihilistic “people are intrinsically bad” theme, it still doesn’t make any sense to have Shuhei behave so devotedly and then genuinely love his mother enough to take a 12 year sentence for her (even if the police could have just asked a few questions in the right direction and implicated the mother just based on witnessed conversation that others clearly would have seen, which is another plot hole that helps to ruin this film).

It’s genuinely frustrating how good I wanted this film to be, and how it could have been another good movie titled “Mother”. Instead, it repeatedly fails to deliver on its promise of good drama, and has some execution barriers that are never overcome throughout its runtime. What is most frustrating is seeing the glimpses of great work simply get buried underneath the rubbish, and I genuinely mean buried with how long it takes this film to deliver anything at all. Because of that, I give this film a 4 out of 10.

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