Over-reaching in its ambitions, Madonna is a 121–minute slog through heavy-handed symbolism and absurd religious allegory.
Recently hired as a nurse’s aid, Ms. Moon takes note of the arrival of a new patient – Jang Mina. Moon is somehow the only worker in the facility inquisitive enough to notice Mina’s ballooned abdomen is not just swelling but in fact a full-blown pregnancy. Hired by the son of a dying tycoon being cared for in the same hospital to find someone related to Mina, Ms. Moon begins an investigation into Mina’s life and how she wound up pregnant and unconscious.
The tycoon’s son Sang-woo is a stock “evil businessman” of a character, believing money to be the end-all be-all which he repeatedly uses to buy power and keep his emotions at bay. Just how brilliantly dull his mental operations are shines in his description of Ms. Moon’s eyes as an empty room, followed by the declaration that she should “fill it with something” in tandem with the physical motion of passing her an envelope of cash as compensation for her private-eye troubles.
Suddenly, half of the film becomes a story told in flash-backs of Mina’s life through information Moon receives from interviews with old friends and co-workers of the enigmatic mother to-be. Increasing parallels between the two women’s lives add up the narrative redundancies and increase Moon’s emotional investment in the case. We learn that Mina’s nickname was “Madonna,” a snug fit for her continued sacrifices as a Christ-like bearer of misfortunes and burdens of the literal and symbolic variety. When it comes to symbols, Madonna has a visual fluency that is rarely paired with clumsy on-the-nose frankness. Dripping egg yolk, tears, and raindrops all make appearances to let us know things are sad. Certain elements might have worked better if not for the constant barrage of detractors working hard to undo any semblance of cohesion, with the film’s drab generic solo piano composition starring as a top – and repeat – offender.
Ideas are occasionally introduced with adequate finesse but later undone by an irritating insistence on relentlessly smashing the “poetic competence” button with a sledgehammer. The best example of this comes shortly after the film’s climax when it has been made abundantly clear that an extra-large sacrifice will be made. Metaphorically, the preservation of one specific individual’s life pays penance for one that was taken too soon. Unfortunately, director Shin Su-won does not trust her audience to interpret this – already clear – information independently and instead panders to us a painfully blunt surreal moment that looks like it was taken from a very different (and much lower-budget) film.
In Madonna I tried hard to find a film worth recommending, but such a search may just be in vain.