Even before it starts, Park Jae-beom‘s gorgeous film, Mother Land, has a lot to be proud of. It’s the first fully stop-motion animated South Korean film in decades, and even outside of that, these types of films are so rarely seen across the globe. It’s not overly long, clocking in at just over an hour, but it manages to accomplish a lot within that timeframe, giving us a grounded story full of heart that’s sure to entertain people of all ages.
Two Young Siblings Embark on a Grand Adventure
Mother Land introduces us to the Yates family, a nomadic tribe of reindeer herders living in the frozen Siberian tundra. After a particularly nasty snow season, the tribe’s matriarch, Shoora, falls ill. After both traditional and modern forms of medicine fail, the family are advised by an old shaman woman to seek the aid of the master of the forest, an ancient being in the form of a giant bear with red eyes that resides in the nearby forest and watches over the land.
Against the wishes of her parents, Krisha, the young daughter of the tribe, sneaks away and embarks on a journey to reach the master of the forest and save her mother, believing herself to have some sort of unexplainable connection to the master of the forest. She brings only her pet reindeer with her as company, but unbeknownst to Krisha, her younger brother, Kolya, has also joined the voyage, concealed in her belongings.
From here, it’s a coming-of-age story for Krisha and Kolya. At the film’s onset, they have the typical adversarial relationship that one might expect from two youngsters in the early stages of their lives. Krisha is on the cusp of prepubescent maturity, and here she faces her first real test in learning to act as a protector and ally to her sibling, who in turn must learn that there are certain things in life that must be taken seriously.
A Simple Story About Tradition vs. Modernity
At its core, the film is a simple, grounded tale of humanity vs nature, tradition vs modernity; the stark contrast between nature’s traditions and civilization’s machinations are constantly on full display. There’s a telling scene early on where Shoora is given pills brought to her from a nearby village, only to immediately vomit them up.
The piece’s villains, Vladimir and Bazak, are a pair of hunters sent by the government to take down the master of the forest and show the nomadic people of the land that there is no magic protecting them, and that they need the might of the government to keep them safe. Vladimir is a scumbag who’s willing to pay huge sums of money to just about anyone to make sure that they achieve their goals, and Bazak is just the kind of manipulatable tortured soul he needed to hire for the job.
Breathtaking Visuals and Strong Performances
Throughout the journey, the film’s visuals are breathtaking. Great pains where taken to illustrate small details, which can’t have been easy, given our densely populated with foliage, moss, and small creatures a forest environment can be. The types of locales and props on display are more varied than one might expect from a film like this, and every scene is brimming with color, even those set against the bleakest snowstorm are vibrant and alive.
The action pieces are exciting and gripping, losing nothing in the chosen medium. Further still, the stop-motion adds a sense of magic and wonder that’s often missing from high budget family flicks.
The great voice performances also help add a strong layer of depth. Even for those unfamiliar with the spoken language, it’s easy enough to tell that lots of care went into crafting how each character sounded. Lead performers Lee Jun-Yi and Kim Ye-eun, who play Krisha and her mother, respectively, provide the emotional core of the film, and do a lot of the heavy lifting in bringing the scenes to life. Lee Yong-nyeo also provides a fantastic, scenery-chewing performance as the old shaman woman. It’s easy enough to tell that she’s having a great time.
It also helps when the subtitles are well-translated clearly, which they were, so credit where credit’s due in that department as well.
Mother Land Is a Must-See for the Whole Family
Mother Land is a film that will entertain the whole family, and it doesn’t have a mean bone in its body. That’s not to say that it doesn’t contain a few surprises – there were one or two moments where theater-goers audibly gasped during the premiere. It’s likely to evoke the same emotions as those classic Rankin Bass animations, where, even if for just a short period of time, it feels like magic could be real.
Mother Land had its North American premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal on July 30th, 2023. Make sure to watch this space for more information regarding the film’s wide release.