‘True Mothers’ Review: Family Entanglements

Remarkably resistant to sentimentality in individual scenes yet baldly manipulative in the big picture, the melodrama “True Mothers” is probably the most mainstream effort yet from Naomi Kawase, a Japanese director who hasn’t received much distribution in the United States but has been a mainstay of the Cannes Film Festival for two decades. Although the pandemic canceled the festival in May, in June the Cannes programmers announced “True Mothers” as an official selection of the event-that-wasn’t (and later screened it at a mini-festival in October). The movie has the sort of densely plotted texture and widely accessible emotions that might have earned it the Palme d’Or — not necessarily for the best reasons.

Adapted from a novel by Mizuki Tsujimura, the film is told through a series of intricately interlocked flashbacks. At the outset, Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) have a kindergarten-age son, Asato (Reo Sato), whom they adopted when he was a baby. His teacher calls to say that a boy has fallen off the jungle gym and claims Asato pushed him. Soon after, that boy’s mother, taking a jab at what she perceives as Satoko and Kiyokazu’s wealth, requests reimbursement for the medical expenses. Is it possible that the couple took in a bad seed?

In straight cuts — that is, the time shifts aren’t obviously telegraphed with blackouts or dissolves — “True Mothers” doubles back to the story of how Asato was adopted: of how Kiyokazu’s inability to start a pregnancy led him to propose divorce, of how the pair learned of an adoption agency and independently began to research it.

By the present action, they have blossomed into devoted and conscientious parents. Then Satoko receives another call: A young woman claiming to be the boy’s biological mother wants either the child or a payoff.

Satoko and Kiyokazu suspect she isn’t who she says she is, and Kawase drops a new anvil of flashbacks to tell the story of Hikari (Aju Makita), the teenage girl who gave birth to the boy. A further set of flashbacks is triggered after police turn up at Satoko and Kiyokazu’s door. Whether the stranger claiming to be the mother was an impostor, and how these narratives loop together, isn’t settled until the end.

“True Mothers” explores the malleable nature of family and complementary forms of mothering: one mother gives birth, another nurtures and a third — the head of the adoption agency (Miyoko Asada), who sheltered Hikari at a difficult time — acts in a mother’s stead. The gauzy flourishes from Kawase’s less accessible films remain, such as her penchants for blown-out imagery and transitional nature shots. The stunning seascapes of the Hiroshima-area island where Hikari lives during the pregnancy help establish a contemplative mood.

Only a mountain couldn’t be moved by “True Mothers” — but like Asato’s parentage, the sources of that effect are complex. From one angle, “True Mothers” is sensitive and layered. From another, the tricks it plays with perspective constitute an all-too-calculated ploy for tears.

True Mothers
Not rated. In Japanese, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.

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