Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Fantasia ’23: Mother Land

Life was always hard in Siberian. That is why the Soviets exiled dissidents there. However, the nomadic Yates people are used to it. In fact, there is beauty in the way they live in balance with nature. Lt. Vladimir intends to disrupt that balance, for the sake of his socialist ideology. A young girl in search of a mystical animal could be collateral damage in Park Jae-beom’s stop-motion animated feature, Mother Land, which had its North American premiere at the 2023 Fantasia International Film Festival.

The Yates survive on the meat and blood of reindeer, but they also have great affection for the animal, some of which they keep as pets. It is a hard life, but their family ties are strong, so when Krisha’s mother falls ill, she will do anything to save her. The Shaman’s treatment is ineffective, but she advises Krisha to seek out Red Bear, the great guardian of the forest, who is reputed toi have healing powers—should he chose to use them.

Krisha sets off on her own, but her bratty brother stows-away on her reindeer sled. They are not alone. Lt. Vladimir has recruited Bazak, a disillusioned Yates hunter, to track and kill the legendary Red Bear, thereby providing secular socialism’s superiority over superstition and nature.

Mother Land is the first Korean stop-motion feature since the late 1970s, which is somewhat surprising, given the international success of Korean animators employing different techniques. Regardless, Park’s film is a wonderfully rich world, realized with keen sensitivity. It definitely captures a culture facing existential challenges, mostly from the “modern” Soviet world (the ironic title is a sly play on the Soviet “Motherland” and the ailing land of Krisha’s ailing mother).

Arguably, Krisha is a familiarly plucky heroine, but she learns a lot during the film’s relatively short sixty-nine minutes, which humbles her. Bazak is also a remarkably complex character. There are also several appealingly furry reindeers.

You would think we would have a lot of Communist bad guys in Hollywood films, especially since the Neo-Stalinist Putin is still trying to complete his invasion of Ukraine, but no, we must look to South Korea instead. It adds a compelling element to a visually striking fable. Highly recommended for fans of stop-motion animation,
Mother Land deserves a proper theatrical release after premiering at this year’s Fantasia.