Watching This Is Us is an emotional ride. If you manage to get through an entire episode without bawling, it’s a minor miracle. But most of the time we’re left feeling as broken as a hand-me-down crockpot in Jack’s kitchen. However, with the This Is Us season finale approaching, we’re going to need a new outlet to channel all that pent-up emotional energy into. Enter: Call Me Mother. This Korean drama has all the emotion, mystery, powerful family stories, and well-developed complex female characters of This Is Us, perfected through a quiet South Korean lens.
No Gimmicks Here
Based on the 2010 Japanese series, Mother, Call Me Mother follows Kang Su-Jin who takes an abused and neglected child, fakes the little girl’s death, and tries to smuggle her out of South Korea. On the run from police and other shady characters, Su-Jin is forced to face her complicated relationship with her adoptive mother and learns more about her past than she ever wanted to know.
Like This Is Us, this K-drama just doesn’t let up. Every reveal puts a new piece of the scattered puzzle together. Su-Jin and the (technically but not really) kidnapped girl, Hye-Na, aren’t all that dissimilar. These are broken people whose lives are collapsing in on each other in the rubble of a messed up childhood. The show connects to the past through multiple generations of people hurting and trying to deal with loss.
But to tell its story, Call Me Mother takes a more linear approach to its narrative. Rather than muddling the timeline and confusing viewers about what happened when, the show chooses specific flashback moments to revisit and build on meaningful themes and imagery. Much of the present-day events are a direct result of the things that happened in each character’s past, but its slow-release reveal structure works in the show’s favor making the pain of each moment sting even more.
How I Met My Mother
What’s particularly refreshing about Call Me Mother is that Su-Jin is a woman in her late 30s who is adamantly against having children. In fact, she doesn’t even really like children at all. The show delves deeper into this, how being abandoned at an orphanage by her mother and the complicated relationship with her adoptive mother might have led her to feel this way. Better still, the K-drama shows that despite Su-Jin being in her late 30s, not wanting children, a loner, and a scientist intently focused on her work, she’s still attractive to hot, chisel-jawed young Korean doctors.
Women not wanting children is a topic rarely addressed in pop culture — whether in South Korea or elsewhere in the world. And although This Is Us dances around this idea with Rebecca who hints that she may not have wanted to become a mother, Call Me Mother makes it a core plot point. By putting Su-Jin in this impossible situation, she has to fight against herself to save a life. The tension this builds, particularly in the early episodes when Su-Jin awkwardly tries to look like the mother of a child she barely knows, makes the tender moments between Hye-Na and Su-Jin even more intense. Seriously, just try not to cry.
The Bechdel Test
This Is Us definitely passes the Bechdel test. Well-rounded (and named) female characters often have conversations with each other about topics that aren’t other dudes. The women aren’t template drama cardboard cutouts either. They’re real women who hurt and heal and love and struggle like the rest of us. They’re imperfect, and we love them for it.
However, while This Is Us does a great job of highlighting interesting female characters, there’s still a lot to be desired. The NBC drama fleshes out male characters like Jack and Randall far more than its female counterparts. Meanwhile, Rebecca’s childhood remains a mystery and Kate has become a rather one-note character with storylines limited to her relationship with Toby and her various attempts at losing weight.
Call Me Mother, on the other hand, takes the Bechdel test to another level. With only a few male characters of note, each represents a stock-standard role: the hot, kind, and dedicated doctor, the evil abusive boyfriend, and the knowing cop who won’t let go of a case. The male characters show little development at all, and I don’t think any of them have had a conversation about something other than female characters. And frankly, it’s a refreshing change. With representation in Hollywood a hot-button topic and women still fighting for strong leading roles, a show that smashes the mold to smithereens is exciting to watch.
With Chung Seo-Kyung behind the stunning script, it’s no wonder the Korean drama has such well-written, complex female characters. The screenwriter has co-written many of famed Korean director, Park Chan-Wook’s films, including Lady Vengeance and The Handmaiden. Seo-Kyung’s films often depict complicated women in complicated situations dealing with complicated problems, and it’s this aspect of Call Me Mother that truly resonates.
Who Needs a Good Cry?
This is the kind of show we need. It’s a unique look at motherhood from varying perspectives, delving deep into the topic without shying away from asking hard questions.
Like most K-dramas, Call Me Mother is a single season stand-alone series. So while This Is Us Season 2 comes to a close next week, it’s the perfect show to tide us over while we wait for Season 3 to rob us of fully-functioning tear ducts.
Call Me Mother is available to stream on DramaFever.