A Mother’s Story starts off by telling a compelling tale about a mother who reluctantly stays illegally in the United States to provide medicine for her ailing daughter. The film takes the time to set up the conflict, and comes to thrive on a subtle depiction of the hardship and tragedy involved. It then takes a turn into operatic territory, as the protagonist begins to face a more cartoonish portrayal of the same struggle. A Mother’s Story thrives in the shades of gray, but too much of is polarized into simple blacks and whites.
Medy (Pokwang) is a mother of two, struggling to make ends meet thanks to the antics of her gambler husband (Nonie Buencamino). She goes on a trip to America fully intending to return home in a week, but when her youngest gets sick, she reluctantly decides to stay illegally in order to make enough money for the treatments. She endures seven years in America, facing various trials, only to return home to a husband that’s strayed, a son that resents her, and a daughter that doesn’t even recognize her.
There’s a lot of crying in the movie, but not all of it is earned. There’s real merit to the way the film depicts the struggle of illegal aliens, but it soon lapses into easy vilification and cartoonish behavior. The film starts out on the right track, finding these beautifully sad moments that don’t discount the kindness of strangers. These scenes play up the shades of gray that come with the experience. It all goes wrong in the middle, once Medy becomes a housekeeper for a lawyer couple. Then the struggle becomes black and white. Medy experiences a level of dehumanization under the couple that itself feels dehumanizing. Her masters don’t have any qualities that might identify them as human.
Though it’s almost certain that some of it is based on truth, the level of evil ascribed to these characters makes them feel completely artificial. It also builds up to a rather weak climax that doesn’t really do justice to the emotions involved. The same weakness carried over to the plotline back home, where it feels the characters have been given signposts of conflict without really internalizing them. The film tries to carry the emotion with soft music and heavy dramatic filmmaking, but it doesn’t quite work out for the big moments. The film is much better in its softer scenes, when it lets the smaller tragedies seep through.
Still, the film does make a decent case for Pokwang as a dramatic actress. There’s something more real about her than your average movie star, a lack of vanity that lets something more genuine come through. It gets a little awkward when she hits comedic beats in the middle of a dramatic, but that’s more a failure of the writing. In fact, Pokwang tends to elevate the material, lending the artifice a real sense of humanity. She gets ample support from Nonie Buencamino, who finds a fresh streak of pathos in a rather simple character. The same can’t be said of Rayver Cruz, who’s given a complicated set of emotions but reduces it to teenage petulance.
A Mother’s Story is almost transcendent in its first half. Its understanding of the complex emotions involved in having to leave a family behind creates a fuller picture of the experience. But the second half leaves the bitter taste of artificial drama, of conflicts much larger than life, yet somehow less powerful than what’s real. Still, a strong central performance gives the film a decent anchor into the truth, making the film a worthwhile if flawed depiction of a tragic experience.