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Sophie Lee has been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant. Her husband's family, devout Korean Catholics, prays for the couple. His failure to have a child is deeply shameful to him, so when he attempts suicide, Sophie tries something extreme: she follows an undocumented immigrant - a Korean who resembles her husband - from a fertility clinic to his apartment in New York City where she proposes to hire him to sire her child. She offers $300 per session and $30,000 if she gets pregnant. After several sessions, neither is able to keep emotion out of the arrangement. Where can this relationship go, and what about her husband? Will her actions save him and their marriage? Written by
Vera Farmiga is one of those rare actors that is emotionally present in roles that require vulnerability and honesty. I remember seeing her first in that short-lived TV series "Roar." She alone among all the actors in the cast that included a young Heath Ledger seemed to project real emotions in a series that was flirting close to "Xena" territory.
So Director Gina Kim could not have found a better actor to play the role of Sophie, a woman who must make difficult choices involving two men and their respective worlds. Much will be made in Asian American circles about the intimate scenes Farmiga has with men of Asian descent. Beyond the novelty of such pairings in film, these scenes underscore one of the peculiar aspects of the movie: while the men in these scenes go through the (ahem) motions, Farmiga actually acts.
That disparity is apparent in almost every scene Farmiga has with the Asian actors. While the male leads, Jung-woo Ha and David McInnis, are dutiful journeymen in their roles, they don't reach the honesty that Farmiga is able to bare. Against Farmiga's acting, Ha's and McInnis's performances come across almost as recitation.
I can see Ha's delivery fitting seamlessly in a cutesy Korean miniseries. Someone should tell male actors not to grip their hair with both hands when the scene calls for inner turmoil. It comes off as pantomime. That "someone" should have been the director. While plot and composition worked well, I found Kim's direction of the acting lacking. Perhaps she was working within the limitations of the acting abilities of the male leads. In that particular case, she should have recast those roles.
The lapses in the direction of the actors are apparent when lines are spoken by the male leads. There is an odd stiffness to the delivery that sounds "off" to native-speakers and those of us who immigrated to the States at a young age. Something in the cadence and intonation that distinguishes someone reading Shakespeare and someone speaking as Hamlet. Ha may have had an English tutor in Korea that spent too much time in-country, because he actually does a fine job with lines he speaks in Korean. I marvel at actors who can truly act in two different languages. Sidow and Streep easily come to mind.
Kim isn't a native speaker and so she will have to develop a sensitivity to the sound of spoken English as other non-native directors have had to do. That "ear" is what she will have to develop if she is going to be casting less-gifted or less-experienced talent. Ang Lee had the same problem in his early English language movies and those actors fresh out of Juilliard. It's the difference between Jean-Pierre Jeunet directing Dominique Pinon in French and Jeunet and Pinon, respectively, in English. "Alien: Resurrection" was a just an action movie and the weird delivery by Pinon and some of the supporting cast was noticeable. (Sigourney Weaver made out on her acting chops alone.)
Thankfully, this movie is centered around Sophie and so Farmiga binds the narrative with her honest performance. The role of Sophie really could have been played by an Asian actor and the story could have been a Korean-language movie about a Korean American woman. Perhaps Kim wanted to give emphasis to Sophie's isolation and to that central dilemma of the story.
There are certain elements of Korean and Korean American culture that are played to near-caricature: the cold, oppressive mother-in-law and the zealous pastor, for instance. So, I must wonder if the story came from Kim's own deliberation about her relationships and choices she has had to make as a Korean and a Korean American.
For Farmiga, it is another remarkable performance to add to her growing body of work.
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