‘Madonna’: Cannes Review

Strong performances in an original premise driven out of groove by a flashback-filled second half and a sentimental finale

South Korean helmer Shin Su-won returns to Cannes with a noir-tinged drama about a nurse’s attempt to derail a heart transplant operation involving a pregnant, comatose street-walker.

Dodgy organ transplants have driven many a South Korean criminal thriller in recent years, but writer-screenwriter Shin Su-won has given such illicit acts a new twist by making them central to what could easily have been a neo-noir. Revolving around a jaded nurse’s attempt to understand and then intervene in an operation transferring a heart from a comatose street-walker to an ailing tycoon, Madonna offers an original premise which cuts straight to the core of the cosmetically prosperous South Korea’s dark underbelly.

Just like her 2012 festival hit Pluto — which deploys the murderous in-school misdeeds of affluent students as a critique of social elites — Shin’s new film is unflinching in depicting the abuse and suffering imposed by the self-anointed captains of industry on the downtrodden. Also like her previous film, however, a penchant for over-expositional flashbacks is distracting, undermining the taut tension of the narrative while also curtailing the powerful turn of her star Seo Young-hee.

Bowing at the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, Madonna represents a leap up the Croisette rankings for both Shin, whose short film Circle Line premiered at the festival in 2012, and also Seo, the star of the internationally distributed 2010 Critics’ Week revenge thriller Bedevilled. Given its original premise and the calibrated performances on show, the film should secure a sustained run on the festival circuit.

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Madonna’s noir-ish roots are apparent from the very first sequence of the film, when the protagonist Hye-rim (Seo) is seen jolting herself out of nightmare-infested slumber. With a stack of bills and an ashtray filled with butt-ends strewn across her bedside table, the visibly jaded woman’s real life seems just as infernal as her dreams. And towards purgatory she proceeds: donning a wig and a stony-faced veneer, she starts her new job as a nurse in a high-class hospital — a microcosm of the dark, corrupt world out there as revered tycoons and convicted politicians flaunt their power, making readily humiliating and unsavory demands on the serf-like staff.

Quickly sent to serve on the VIP ward — where the nurses are required to doll themselves up to please the mostly male guests — Hye-rim finds herself assigned to the long-comatose Chairman Kim (Yoo Soon-chul), a billionaire whose fortunes prop up the hospital. As the old man’s heart condition worsens, news filters in that a newly-admitted, nameless car crash victim could provide the transplant which could sustain the chairman’s life.

Soon enough, Hye-rim discovers something wrong: rather than simply overweight, the dormant donor — whose possessions include a blonde wig and a call-girl business card with the name “Madonna” — is actually pregnant. Not that this would put the tycoon’s scion (Kim Young-min) from putting off the operation which, by saving his father’s life, would help continue his life of affluence. Instead, Hye-rim is plunged further into the immoral mire when the young man — who praises her for having “no petty sympathy” towards others — assigns her to turn private detective and locate the girl’s family, with the aim of getting whoever she can find to sign an agreement green-lighting the transplant.

Up until then, Madonna offers riveting material. Shin shows terrific control in pacing the plot, the sangfroid conveyed vividly through Yun Ji-woon’s camerawork and Lee Shin-hye’s production design heightens the clinical inhumanity on show. As Hye-rim begins to unearth the truth behind her “Madonna,” however, the proceedings begin to drag: it is understandable that the character who gives the film its title should inevitably become the backbone of the plot, but the increasingly long flashbacks of the young woman’s life story — the much-deployed fall of an abused woman falling into poverty, prostitution and pregnancy – undermines the film’s initial intrigue.

Kwon So-hyun’s performance as the humiliated Madonna is unquestionably affecting, and her plummet down the social ladder speaks volumes about how the vain struggles of working-class women in a chauvinist, capitalist system. Then again, one could easily question the graphic way in which she is shown being hurt and abused — not just on a moral level, but also on an aesthetic one, as such sensationalist depictions feed into a swerve towards the sentimentality driving Hye-rim’s final act of restoring social justice.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: June Film in a Sansoo Ventures, Little Big Pictures presentation
Cast: Seo Young-hee, Kwon So-hyun, Kim Young-min, Yoo Soon-chul
Director-writer: Shin Su-won
Producer: Francis Lim
Executive producers: Kim Hyun-woo, Kwon Ji-won, Kim Sung-su, Kim Dong-hyun
Director of photography: Yun Ji-woon
Production designer: Lee Shin-hye
Editor: Lee Do-hyun
Music: Ryu Jae-ah
International Sales: Finecut
In Korean
No rating; 120 minutes