An agreement between two women about an unborn child leads to serious consequences…
Originally released back in 2013, Godsend was written and produced by Kim Ki-duk and directed by Moon Si-hyun, one of his protégés who worked with him on Time, Breath and Pieta before making her debut in 2011 with the drama Home Sweet Home. Unsurprisingly, the film doesn’t stray too far from Kim’s usual territory, dealing with gender politics, destructive relationships and sexual violence in a tale of a young woman who agrees to give her child to an older woman to raise as her own. Following its world premiere at Busan, the film went on to screen at a variety of other festivals around the world, including playing in the Noves Visions section of Sitges in 2014.
The film begins with pregnant teen So Young (Jeon Soo-jin, Hot Young Bloods) visiting a hospital to ask for an abortion, not wanting to suffer the stigma of being a young single woman, her boyfriend being a useless, uncaring sort. There she meets the middle aged Seung Yeon (Lee Eun-woo, Kabukicho Love Hotel), who begs her not to abort the child and to give it to her once born. Accepting an expensive car as payment, So Young agrees, and the two women head to a remote rural cabin to wait for her to have the baby. Although they get along well and things initially go according to plan, Seung Yeon’s husband (Lee Seung-joon, The Admiral: Roaring Currents) starts to find the situation uncomfortable, thanks in no small part to the presence of a young painter camping nearby (Kim Yeong-jae, Another Family), and a group of hunters show up with the worst of intentions.
As can be guessed from the above synopsis, Godsend is very much a film in the Kim Ki-duk tradition, taking a morally provocative premise and using it to explore the shadowy side of the human psyche. Though the film’s themes of materialism, teen pregnancy and gender politics are common enough, the story is an interesting one and plays out in unpredictable and shifting fashion, in particular when it comes to the relationship between So Young and Seung Yeon. Much like their bargain, their dynamic is unconventional, a changing bond that pushes them both to revaluate their desires and motivations regarding the coming baby. Jeon Soo-jin and Lee Eun-woo turn in very strong performances, giving the film an emotional grounding not always seen in Kim’s own works and making it both engaging and moving.
The film’s male characters as might be expected are quickly revealed to be a mostly despicable bunch, their behaviour highlighting the different types of misogyny faced by women in modern Korean society. While this does become a bit much in places, especially with regards to the cartoonishly-brutish hunters and the pointlessly mysterious painter, the ways in which the attitude of Seung Yeon’s husband towards her transforms is fascinating and believable, most notably when it comes to their sex life. Sex is key to the film and at the heart of almost all its exchanges and interactions – given the involvement of Kim, needless to say the film gets very rough, with a constant lurking threat of rape and sadism throughout. This does mean that the film may well prove upsetting for some viewers, with some unpleasant events during the middle section, though thankfully these are at least mined for a thoughtful rather than gratuitously nasty conclusion.
Inevitably, it’s a bit hard not to see Godsend as Kim Ki-duk-lite, though to be fair, Moon Si-hyun is perfectly creditable behind the camera, and is perhaps best judged as a young director trying to find her own voice and technique at the same time learning from such a notable and distinctive mentor figure. Certainly, while she lacks Kim’s sense of artistry and bold flair for the extreme, she quietly shows a good grasp of character, keeping the film from veering into melodrama and getting the best from her cast. Despite what was obviously a low budget the film is well-shot and makes good use of its rural setting, never feeling too much like a chamber piece and enjoying a serene atmosphere during its early stages before things take a turn for the worse.
There’s definitely more than enough here to make Godsend worthwhile, especially for fans of Kim Ki-duk’s brand of dark and violent poetry. Boosted by a pair of strong lead performances and a challenging script, it stands as a superior Korean indie, and hopefully as a stepping stone for Moon Si-hyun to greater things and a more individual style of filmmaking.