A remarkably assured first feature from Canadian writer/director Gloria Ui Young Kim, Queen of the Morning Calm tells a simple story of a mother and daughter trying to make their way in the world.
The mother is Debra Choi, played by Tina Jung. Her daughter is a 10-year-old bundle of trouble named Mona (Eponine Lee). And the world in question is Toronto – more specifically, the corner of Dundas and George Streets, where Debra works as an exotic dancer at Filmores.
It’s not the life she would have chosen, and she’s doing everything she can to get out of it, taking business classes with the aim of finding a job where she can keep her clothes on. (In one touching scene, she’s dressing for a job interview and asks Mona how she looks. The little girl reaches up, does up one extra button on her blouse, and gives her approval.)
But as Kim’s screenplay shows, there are cycles – of abuse, of poverty, of exploitation – that are difficult to break. Debra’s boyfriend (and Mona’s father) is a ne’er-do-well with the unusual name of Sarge (Jesse LaVercombe), who is barely in their life and all the more trouble when he does show up. Debra spends most of her time dodging the superintendent’s requests for rent, and trying to reign in Mona, who is getting into increasing trouble at the Catholic school she attends.
The drama and the tension in a story like Queen of the Morning Calm – the title is a reference to the nickname of Korea, birthplace of the director as well as her protagonist – comes from the precarious nature of the lives of its characters. In one sense we are all aware of being one event away from tragedy, but for Debra, teetering on the edge of poverty, homelessness and unemployment, it won’t take much for her to topple. And Mona isn’t helping, but why should she? She’s only 10!
Queen of the Morning Calm delivers a nuanced portrayal of inner-city Toronto – neither beautiful nor horrifying – and of a young woman trying to make her way in it. Ironically, the real-life corner where Filmores now stands – COVID-ready, it boasts – has been slated for redevelopment into condominium housing. But the fictional Debra isn’t looking back.
Queen of the Morning Calm opens Sept. 25 in Toronto, with other cities to follow.
3.5 stars out of 5
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020