True Mothers review – Naomi Kawase’s heartfelt yet frustrating drama | Toronto film festival 2020


The Japanese auteur Naomi Kawase has returned with another of her highly distinctive, tremulously sensitive movies: heartfelt and unhurried, with a tendency to wash the screen in plangent sunlight as the camera looks plaintively up through the branches – and also, a borderline exasperating tendency towards a kind of pass-agg quietism. I have responded variously to this in the past: there was something underpowered in her sucrose drama Sweet Bean but real beauty in other films, such as her award-winning The Mourning Forest. And there is a sustained emotional seriousness in this movie, with committed performances.

The story, adapted from a novel by the mystery writer Mizuki Tsujimura, is about the adoptive parents of a five-year-old who are confronted with the possibility that the troubled birth mother wants her baby back – and like so many films with themes like this, there are a few plot holes. Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) are a well-to-do professional couple who are mortified by their failure to have children. They see a TV documentary about an agency called Baby Baton which matches unwanted babies with childless couples (on condition that one of them give up work to be a full-time parent, a stipulation never commented upon further), and Satoko and Kiyokazu are electrified with new hope. Strangely, this appears to be the first time they have discussed or even heard of adoption.

They take possession of a baby boy from an anguished and stricken teenage girl Hikaru (Aju Makita) – the formal handover takes place in the presence of the girl’s own shame-filled parents. But five years later, Hikaru calls them on the phone, and then shows up at their apartment, now a slouchingly aggressive young adult, her face almost invisible behind a curtain of hair, very different from the bowing, tearfully submissive schoolgirl they first saw. She is demanding her baby back, or demanding money. Is this, in fact, the girl they met? Is this some kind of scam? Kawase’s story then leaves Satoko and Kiyokazu, and tells us the parallel tale of Hikaru, and what has been happening to her for the previous five years.

Of course, no matter how stunned the couple were, they would surely soon demand to know how this girl got their address and telephone number and would be on the phone to the adoption agency to ask that question. And that plot niggle isn’t entirely solved by the realisation that part of the film’s narrative strategy is (eventually) to answer it, but also keep us hanging as to the identity of the young woman who has made this dramatic appearance.

Interestingly, this crisis happens at the very moment that they are experiencing the problems of parenthood: they are currently expected to apologise and even pay money to the parents of a little kid who, perhaps wrongly, says that Satoko and Kiyokazu’s son pushed their child off a jungle gym. So there is something interestingly acute about this terrible trial coinciding with a banal, low-key but painful problem – although this is a subtlety which is atypical of the film.

True Mothers winds its way up to a C-major ending which tells us what we sort of suspected – that this is not, in fact, a mystery thriller, and also that the concept of the “true” mother cannot be restricted by biology. It takes its time telling us things we know already, but I admired the non-macho aesthetic of the film and the utterly committed performance from Aju Makita.

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