By Amir Ganjavie.
What is particularly amazing about new Korean movies is their ability to be simultaneously popular and very critical of Korean society. We have already see this in masterpieces likes Memories of Murder (2003), a touching detective story that probes its social milieu throughout. Madonna, directed by Shin Su-Won and recently screened at the Cannes Film Festival, is another good example. The film avoids false moves from the beginning; its dream sequences, overall tone, and performances all are hallmarks of a good detective movie. If populist, Madonna also contains political messages questioning the impacts of capitalism and its neoliberal agenda on Korean life.
The movie features a young nurse, Hye-rim (Seo Young-hee), who works in the private section of a hospital. She has been assigned to nurse an ailing tycoon (Kim Cheol-oh) who needs a heart to live. The billionaire’s son can only continue his rich life if his father remains alive, since little inheritance has been left to him. The only chance for the father’s survival is to illegally transplant the heart of a comatose prostitute named Madonna. The nurse decides to help for this she must become a detective in order to facilitate the process of illegal transplantation. I had a chance to talk with the director after the film’s screening at Cannes.
What was the point of departure for the movie?
It comes from a couple of real experiences in my life. First of all, a long time ago while I was working in a coffee shop a homeless woman entered and suddenly fell sleep. I looked at her and she seemed like a very normal person; I thought she could be anyone’s daughter. I was not yet thinking about my movie Madonna at that moment but I kept that image somewhere in my mind. The second source of inspiration was my friend who works in a hospital as an assistant nurse. She told me a lot of stories about her work, such as talking about the patients who could have euthanasia but continued to maintain their lives despite their pain and suffering. This experience constitutes the first phase of my scenario and the first images in my movie take place in a VIP hospital building but are focused on the insignificant life linked to the work of my nurse friend. Her experience provides some interesting stories, such as one she told me about someone who very urgently needed a heart transplant so it may have needed to be illegal. This made me think of making a story about that person who would be the transplant donor. That helped me to build up the story and I was thinking about that homeless girl in the coffee shop, thinking that maybe she could be pregnant, so that was my first draft.
I have a question about the plot since I am still not sure why the rich guy trusted the woman in the story. The story suggests that it was because he saw something in her eyes signaling that he could trust her but it appears to me that there was a kind of sexual attraction involved. Do you have any comment on this?
Actually, yes she was attracted to him. Usually assistant nurses are poorly paid, work hard but only part time on temporary contracts, and occupy the lowest level of the hospital hierarchy. In the movie, for example, you see the VIP building, which has really rich patients, and they only hire pretty nurses. When the nurse looks at the president’s expensive watch there is a kind of desire for money and she admires the person as well as having a kind of sexual attraction. Of course, Sang-woo, the young president, knows very well that he is the object of attraction because he is the president; he knows even in a glance of the eye that Hye-rim feels a kind of attraction to him. I know that there are some women who have a strong sense of independence, but there are also other women who want to rely on men in their life. The young president explores that element, gives her money, and attracts her such that I could say he sociologically governs her.
The ending of the movie is very courageous. It has become common for filmmakers to end their movies without taking a moral or ethical position but you did not follow this style. Why is that?
I chose that ending because I thought that it is very well suited to my style, and I need some form of conclusion. Here we have a prostitute who wanted her baby to be born, and we have a president who will die one day. Their lives are interrelated and one cannot survive if the other continues living, Of course, Hye-rim is not God but she just cuts short the insignificant life of the older president. Regarding the baby, he is the result of rape, but he has the right to be born and that was something that I really meant. At some point I was hesitant about whether the baby had to be born or if it was better for him to die. That was until I saw a documentary on television about single mothers which was very ironic because usually those victims, the young single moms, really hate the father of their babies since they were raped but they love their babies and are really attached to them. That documentary shaped my mind, so maybe the ending can be debated, but I assumed that point.
Why is there no state apparatus involved in the events of your movie? We see inequality and injustice, but it appears that the law has no function, and it is up to the individuals to deal with inequality since we see no government officials in the movie. Are you trying to criticize capitalism and its economic impact in Korea, which has shrunk the role of the state?
Yes, I think that the current economic situation in Korea is very bad. Of course, it is less catastrophic than China, but we still have illegal organ transplants happening in Korea. You see some examples in the movie but there are real cases in Korea where prisoners have been used for illegal transplantation. I wanted to say that yes, rich people are sometimes in a position disobey the law, and I think that is linked to capitalism. Of course, not all rich people are like that, but a lot exploit their wealth and power even if it is not in the center of my frame.
My last question is about the impact of Cannes and how it will impact your movie’s reception in Korea. How do you think that will be?
My movie is low budget and in Korea when you don’t have big stars, it is very difficult to have movie theaters show your film. I think my selection for Cannes will make life easier for me and theater owners will be more interested in my movie, but of course I don’t know and can only hope so!
Nona Adili assisted with this interview.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.