What a month it’s been for foreign language films! In our International Oscar Contenders series we’ve travelled to Latvia, Switzerland, Sudan, and now Japan with Naomi Kawase’s TRUE MOTHERS. Based on a 2015 novel, the film tells two stories about the strength of family to persevere in the face of adversity and asks important questions about how we define motherhood. The answers that Kawase provides, using artful dialogue and gorgeous cinematography, tell us that “motherhood’ is not a black-and-white concept, and allows it to define more than just a single person.

In the opening narrative we meet Satoko and Kiyokazu Kurihara, a couple with a young son, Asato, who they learn has pushed a classmate off a jungle gym, and whose parents now threaten to sue. This scene is intimately designed to introduce us to these people, who we discover will believe their son’s innocence with uncompromising compassion. And when this moment occurs, Kawase opens the curtain to reveal to us the hurdles that led them to this place and time, with a flashback to a chapter when they were young and childless, going through the trials of pregnancy.

We learn that, because Kiyokazu is sterile, they are incapable of bearing a child, something the two of them want more than anything in the world, which puts their entire relationship at stake. Through all the doctor’s appointments and discussion of surgical operation, we find this couple at the most difficult of crossroads. But Kawase doubles down on the warmth of her narrative as they come to a beautiful decision that they will stand by each other no matter what, which is how they arrive at an adoption agency to find their son.

We then flash forward to the present where the film reveals its primary conflict: Asato’s biological mother, a young girl named Hikari, shows up one day demanding money, and Kawase delivers another narrative twist to reveal how Hikari came into her own position.

And that’s as much of the plot as I will give you. With a runtime of almost 2 ½ hours, TRUE MOTHERS tells an intimate epic of people finding their place and purpose in the world. In a community like the one in which these characters live, purpose is traditionally found in family, but Kawase gives us a contradiction to that traditional idea and honestly exemplifies the burdens that come with motherhood itself. She observes it as a role that welcomes judgement and criticism, whether you have a child through untraditional means or your child’s actions define your parental nature. But in light of that, we witness the true strength in motherhood and the bonds that are formed, bonds which transcend superficial societal attitudes.

Through this remarkably tender journey with these characters, Kawase allows us to stay in-tune with their emotions with a lush visual palate and a soft score that weaves, ebbs, and flows throughout narrative. It’s a long journey that will surely fill you with emotion on more than one occasion, and one that’s worth remembering for a long time after the credits roll.

You can watch TRUE MOTHERS in our Virtual Movie Palace along with its fellow international Oscar contenders, which include Denmark’s Golden Globe-nominated ANOTHER ROUND (now playing) and France’s TWO OF US, which opens this Friday.

We would love to hear from you on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter about what you think about these films and which have been favorite. And be sure to check out A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX opening virtually this Friday—and coming directly to us from its Sundance screenings—which will be the subject of a brand-new blog post next week. Until then, have a great rest of your week!

Nick Alderink