True Mothers (朝が来る, Naomi Kawase, 2020)

Perhaps surprisingly and in contrast with many other developed nations child adoption remains relatively rare in Japan with most children who for whatever reason cannot be raised by their birth families cared for by institutions while the adoption of adults is unusually common usually for the purposes of securing an heir for the family name or business. This might be one reason that the “secret” of adoption is touted as a subject for blackmail in Naomi Kawase’s adaptation of the mystery novel by Mizuki Tsujimura True Mothers (Asa ga Kuru), though in this case it will prove to be a fruitless one as the adoptive parents have already made an effort towards transparency having explained to their son that he has another mother while their friends, family, and the boy’s school are all fully aware that he is not their blood relation. 

The Kuriharas, Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura), are a settled, wealthy married couple who are shocked to discover that they are unable to conceive a child naturally because Kiyokazu is suffering from infertility. After a few unsuccessful rounds of painful treatment, they decide to give up and resign themselves to growing old together just the two of them, but after accidentally stumbling over a TV spot about an adoption service which focuses on finding loving homes for children rather than finding children for couples who want to adopt they begin to consider taking in a child who is not theirs by blood. As Kiyokazu puts it, it’s not that he’s obsessed with the idea of having a child, but they have the means and the inclination to raise one and could be of help when there are so many children in need of good homes. After enrolling in the programme, they adopt a little boy, Asato (Reo Sato), and somewhat unusually are encouraged to meet the birth mother, Hikari (Aju Makita), who they discover is a 14-year-old girl tearfully entrusting her baby to them along with a letter to give him when he’s old enough to understand. 

The central drama begins six years later as Asato prepares to leave kindergarten for primary school. A crisis occurs when Satoko is called in because a boy, Sora, has accused Asato of pushing him off the jungle gym. Thankfully, Sora is not seriously hurt though according to the school Asato admits he was there at the time but says he doesn’t remember pushing anyone. The teachers don’t seem to regard him as a violent or naughty boy and wonder if he might have accidentally knocked Sora off without realising, while Satoko for her part tries to deal with the matter rationally neither leaping to his defence without the full facts or prepared to apologise for something that might not have been his fault. The other mother, however, somewhat crassly asks for compensation, bringing up the fact that the family live in a nice apartment and can’t be short of a bob or two. Stunned, Satoko does not respond while the other mother instructs her son not to play with Asato anymore. It’s around this time that she starts receiving anonymous calls that eventually turn out to be from a young woman claiming to be Hikari who first petitions to get her son back and then like Sora’s mother asks for monetary compensation. Only on meeting her the young woman seems completely different from the heartbroken teen they met six years’ previously and Satoko can’t bring herself to belief it’s really her, but if it isn’t who is she and what does she want?

Less a tug of love drama between an adoptive and a birth mother as in the recent After the Sunset, True Mothers places its most important clue in the title in that there need not be a monopoly on motherhood. A woman brought out at the adoption agency open day reveals that she’s explained to her son that he has three mothers, herself, his birth mother, and Asami (Miyoko Asada), the woman who runs “Baby Baton”. Asami encourages her prospective parents to explain to the children the circumstances of their birth before they enter primary school, keen both that they avoid the trauma of suddenly discovering the truth and that the birth mother not be “erased” from the child’s life and history. 

Though founded in love and with the best of intentions, Baby Baton also has its regressive sides in reinforcing conservative social norms, open only to heterosexual couples who’ve been married over three years (Japan does not yet have marriage equality or permit same sex couples to adopt) and requiring one parent, though it does not specify which, to give up their career and become a full-time parent. Its residential requirement is also not a million miles away from a home for unwed mothers hidden away on a remote island near Hiroshima which seems to be the way it is used and viewed by Hikari’s parents who force her to give up the baby more out of shame than practicality, telling people that she’s in hospital recovering from pneumonia. Nevertheless it’s at Baby Baton that Hikari finally finds acceptance and a sense of family, feeling rejected by the birth parents who have sent her away rather than embracing or supporting her in the depths of her emotional difficulty. Asami was there for her when no one else was, later explaining that unable to have children herself she founded Baby Baton as means of helping other women who found themselves in difficulty in the hope of “making sure all children are happy”. 

Like Hikari many of the other women at Baby Baton are there because of a corrupted connection with their own maternal figures, often rejected or abandoned many of them having participated in sex work as a means of survival. Reminiscent of her documentary capture of residents of the old persons’ home in The Mourning Forest or the former leper colony in Sweet Bean, Kawase films the scenes at Baby Baton with naturalistic realism as one young woman celebrates her 20th birthday sadly wondering if any one will ever celebrate her birthday again. A testament to female solidarity, the home presents itself as a kind of womb bathed in golden light and protected by a ring of water providing a refuge for often very young women at a time of intense vulnerability until they are eventually rebirthed by the surrogate maternal figure of Asami. 

The film’s Japanese title “Morning Will Come” as echoed in the song which plays frequently throughout hints at an eventual fated reunion while also pointing towards Asato the first character of whose name literally means “morning”, lending an ironic quality to its English counterpart which invites the conclusion that there are somehow false mothers while simultaneously evoking a sense of a great confluence of maternity in the unselfishness of maternal love. Immersed in a deep well of empathy, Kawase’s bittersweet drama is infinitely kind if not without its moments of darkness and pain resolute in its sense of fairness and the insistence there’s love enough to go around if only you’re brave enough to share it.


True Mothers streams in the UK from 16th April exclusively via Curzon Home Cinema.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

Song Lang (Leon Le, 2018)

Song Lang poster 1“How could the gods be so cruel” a ci lương performer intones, “Allowing us to be together yet worlds apart”. An achingly nostalgic return to the Saigon of the 1980s, Leon Le’s melancholy debut Song Lang is a lament for frustrated connections and the inevitability of heartbreak, taking its lonely heroes on a slow path towards self realisation only to have fate intervene at the worst possible moment.

An enforcer for the steely “Auntie Nga” (Phuong Minh), Dung Thunderbolt (Lien Binh Phat) has long been trying to take revenge on his unhappy life through the intense act of self-harm which is his way of living. A routine job, however, jolts him out of his inertia when he wanders into a theatre where a ci lương opera company is preparing for a performance. There he finds himself catching sight of the famous performer Linh Phung (Isaac), only to run away, in flight from the intensity of being woken from his reverie. Later he returns to claim the debt, threatening to burn the company’s precious costumes until Linh Phung arrives and interrupts him, proudly insisting he will pay the balance after the first performance. Dung leaves confused, refusing to accept the watch and necklace that Linh Phung offered in partial payment.

A second chance meeting confirms that the two men might have more in common than they’d first assumed. The lonely Linh Phung, eating alone in a nearby cafe, gets into a fight with some drunken louts who wanted him to sing a few tunes, but as surprisingly handy as he turns out to be quickly gets himself knocked out at which point Dung steps in to rescue him, eventually taking him home to sleep it off where they later bond through a shared love of violent video games. An opportune power cut allows the two men to enter a greater level of intimacy during which Dung begins to re-embrace his ci lương childhood through the instrument his father left behind.

The Song Lang, as the opening informs us, is an embodiment of the god of music delivering the rhythm of life and guiding musicians towards the moral path. That’s a path that Dung knows all too well that he has strayed from and is perhaps looking to return to. The central theme of ci lương is “nostalgia for the past” – something echoed in Linh Phung’s peculiar philosophy of time travel through people, objects, and places which seems to be borne out in Dung’s constant flashbacks to a more innocent age before his happy childhood ended in parental betrayal and sudden abandonment.

Linh Phung, meanwhile, is nursing his own wounds. His mentor tells him that though he is popular his performance lacks depth because he lacks life experience while his co-star mocks him for never having been in love. Rooting through Dung’s belongings, he discovers a book he’d loved in childhood about a lonely elephant taken away from his jungle and sold to a circus. Both men are, in a sense, exiles from their pack walking a lonely path of confusion and despair but finding an unexpected kindred spirit one in the other as they search for new, more fulfilling ways of being. Bonding with Dung opens new emotional vistas for Linh Phung which allow him to perfect his art, while reconnecting with his childhood self through Linh Phung’s music gives Dung the courage leave his nihilistic life of shady moral justifications behind.

Fate, however, may have other plans and karma is always lurking. Linh Phung’s claim that an artist must know great grief proves truer than he realised, but it’s another passage from the book with which he eventually leaves us, affirming that it’s best to learn to enjoy these present moments rather than lingering in an unchangeable past. Yet the art of ci lương is itself steeped in nostalgia, perfect for a “time traveller” like Linh Phung returning to his sadness through his art, proving in a sense that the past is always present and wilfully inescapable. A melancholy, romantic evocation of Saigon in the 1980s, Song Lang is also a beautifully pitched paen to a fading art form and an  “unfinished love song” to lost lovers in which two lonely souls find an echo in each other but discover only tragedy in the implacability of fate.


Song Lang screened as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Vietnamese subtitles only)