Published May 29, 2020After directing a number of impressive shorts (Vita, The Auction, Flamenco) and some delightful television episodes (Leo's FishHeads, It's My Party), Gloria Ui Young Kim has finally produced her first feature-length film, the Kickstarter-funded Queen of the Morning Calm. Ten-plus years in the making, Queen of the Morning Calm mirrors the director's own experiences with violence and poverty — experiences that are all too common for young single mothers and sex workers of all genders.
Tina Jung stars as Debra, a young woman struggling to make ends meet while maintaining a job and taking care of her daughter Mona (Eponine Lee). Making matters worse, Mona's father Sarge (Jesse LaVercombe) comes in and out of their lives with little to no explanation as to where he has been, and keeps Debra under his thumb with false promises of financial and familial stability. Yet he only ever brings upheaval to their home, with his unpredictable violent outbursts and penchant for gambling away what little money they have.
Kim directs the film with delicate sensitivity, perhaps owing to her personal connection to the material. While each character has their flaws and moments of poor judgement — Debra stealing money from the cash register at the strip club, Mona smoking her mother's cigarettes — the film never views them through a judgmental lens, and instead acknowledges that, sometimes, circumstances lead people to act in less-than-perfect ways.
Even when Mona acts out, throwing temper tantrums and trashing Ian's (Shaun Benson) secondhand store after Debra goes on a date with him, it is difficult to be angry with her, knowing the emotional tumult she experiences on a daily basis. At the same time, Debra's frustration with Mona's bad behavior is understandable, and while it is painful to watch at times, their love for each other is evident. The sad truth is that no matter how unconditional their love is, their circumstances make it especially hard to be patient with one another.
The film is technically accomplished and meticulously shot, perfectly capturing the chilly streets, cozy shops and small apartment spaces of Toronto. Scenes of Mona and Debra dragging their belongings through the city streets evoke the alienation and sense of precarity that comes with being a single mother and a sex worker in a big city, experiences that are often excluded within the canon of Toronto-set indie rom-coms (i.e. The F Word, Take This Waltz), a fact that Kim recognizes and begins to rectify in telling this deeply personal, resonant story.
Queen of the Morning Calm is emotionally fraught, anchored by excellent performances, particularly Tina Jung as Debra, who achieves a perfect balance of vulnerability, hardened strength and exhausted resignation. With its honest script, heartrending performances, and impressive technical proficiency, Kim's first feature carries the polish of an accomplished director and certainly proves that hers is a career worth investing in.
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