Plot: In Japan, a couple who are unable to give birth to a child of their own decide to adopt. Years later, their child’s true mother re-appears.
Naomi Kawase’s TRUE MOTHERS is her best film in years. Much more thematically dense, nuanced and layers, it avoid her usual sentimental style and offers a more contemplative film that begs the question: what does a mother mean? Beyond the usual examination of biological mothers versus those who raise and nurture their children despite no biological connection, the film expands its look at the concept of motherhood far beyond raising or giving birth to children, delivering something original, fresh and deeply touching.
Mothers, as Kawase argues here, are those who carry burdens: physical, social and psychological. Their lives change in a given moment and nothing ever stays the same. Whether by choice, planning or a one-night stand, and whether a child is involved or another human being(s) that they go on nurturing, mothers are those who willingly bear the burden of love, support and keeping another soul afloat in an increasingly difficult world to survive in.
The story centers on a Tokyo couple undergoing treatment who seemingly have it all: a happy marriage, a gorgeous home and a stable stream of income. But as they find out they cannot have a baby, they decide to adopt. They reach out to Baby Baton, a not-for-profit association that matches couples with mothers who do not want – or can’t – raise their children. Years later, their true mother of their adopted child resurfaces, causing much turmoil to the family’s otherwise stable lifestyle. To say more would risk spoil the film which, despite clocking in at more than two hours, never drags and manages to keep audiences in sync with its endearing, and often mysterious, narrative.
At the heart of TRUE MOTHERS are four women who each become mothers in very different senses of the world. By society’s standards, perhaps only or two of them can be categorized as such; but Kawase gracefully and lovingly brings their stories to life, creating a beautifully realized story about choice, regret, guilt and the miraculous support systems that brave women – in Japan and around the world – continue to create for each other against all odds. And while the film’s final stretch brings in slightly mixed results with elements that may seem unnecessary or slightly confounding, it still manages to be one of the best films at TIFF with its sincere, heartfelt and authentic approach that does not attempt to tug at heartstrings with sappy, melodramatic moments. Quite on the contrary, it’s one of those rare films that manages to make your heart ache and leaves you pondering about its themes all at the same time.
The film contains one particular sequence that is surely one of the most beautifully filmed in any film this year. Hikari (Aju Makita), the biological mother of the boy adopted by the couple at the center of the story, rides her bike and enjoys the gorgeous blush-tinted blooms. Years later, she looks back at that particular moment of her youth: free as a bird, with no burdens or pain to carry, she longs for that moment to come back to her, soothing her and perhaps transporting her back to when she was more alive than she ever was afterwards. It is then that the film’s examination of motherly burdens truly shines and comes to focus.
Verdict: Naomi Kawase’s best film in years, TRUE MOTHERS is a deeply touching celebration of women who assume duties of love, support and compassion. It will surely find its audience on both local and international festival circuits and in theatres – and if submitted by Japan for this year’s International Feature Film Oscar race, it also stands strong chances to register with voters.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival.