Moon Yu-jung (Lee Na-young), a successful University Lecturer, attempts suicide for the third time. Jung Yun-soo (Gang Dong-won) is on death row for rape and murder. Neither wants to continue living as a result of events in their past. Yu-jung is traumatized as a result of a rape when she was 15 and Yun-su’s criminal path was predestined when his mother abandoned him and his brother when they were just children. The two meet when Yu-jung’s aunt, Sister Monica (Yun Yeo-jong), persuades her to accompany her when she goes to visit Yun-soo in prison. What transpires is a touching love story between two damaged people, whose love for each other reignites a desire to continue living, but can only end in death.
Unlike the conventional death row film, Director SONG”s 4th feature, Maundy Thursday is not so much concerned with critiquing the penal system as it is with illuminating social injustice in wider society and specifically class inequalities. Yun-soo ends up on death row because he cannot access health care for his girlfriend who suffers an ectopic pregnancy in a manner in which mirrors his younger brother’s death, who dies as a result of starvation compounded by a severe beating by a group of young thugs because of lack of access to medical care. In addition social injustice is compounded by familial neglect as embodied by the mother who neglects her child/children. Yu-jung’s mother blames her daughter for the rape, while Yun-soo’s mother is too wrapped up in her own problems to care for her children. The figure of the mother, here as elsewhere in contemporary South Korean cinema, is a metaphor for the nation, collapsing the personal and political onto one composite uncaring and unforgiving figure but whose affections are desired irrespective of her disregard for the needs of her children/people. This is highlighted by the fact that what brings the doomed couple together is the national anthem, as seeing Yu-jung sing it on television when he is a child, and with his brother, marks one of the truly happy times in Yun-soo’s life and this is the reason that Sister Monica takes Yu-jung with her when she visits him for the first time. It is therefore particularly poignant that as Yun-soo waits to die in the execution chamber, he sings the national anthem while Yu-jung listens on the other side of the one-way glass.
The title of the film, Maundy Thursday, refers to both the day on which Yu-jung visits Yun-soo, but is also the day on which Yun-soo is executed: a date marked in Christian calendar’s as the Last Supper, when Jesus dines with his 12 apostles for the last time before his execution. This religious subtext adds another level of meaning to the film’s diegesis and stresses the need for redemption and forgiveness for those cast aside by society and the state. Director Song constructs a multi-layered narrative of pain and suffering, love and hate, which never once degenerates into mawkishness. Both Gon Dong-won and Lee Na-young are excellent as the doomed lovers, while Kim So-hee – who plays Yu-jung’s mother – exhibits a considerable range of acting skills as she transforms from an unfeeling Matriarch to a vulnerable woman coming face to face with her mortality and finally recognizing her own sins (of denial/omission).
I thoroughly enjoyed Maundy Thursday despite the persistent chattering of some of the audience, and am looking forward to seeing more of Director Song’s films this month.