The moment Mother Gamer began to unspool, some of my worst suspicions of this single-mother-turned-gamer film were confirmed when the logos of Thailand’s two biggest gaming companies spread across the screen.
A game company-backed film can only mean one thing: A movie set on painting gaming in a positive light. While the social stigma against gamers has diminished in recent years, change of that sort is slower coming in the kingdom, where it’s still seen as a vice or unwanted addiction – and perhaps rightly so.
Does Mother Gamer, now in theaters, move the needle on gaming as boon or affliction? Does it offer a candid look at the role gaming plays in society? Does it advance the narratives about gaming that frame it as akin to gambling?
Certainly one imagines the ideas lobbed at director Yanyong Kuruaungkoul by out-of-touch Garena or Tencent executives likely included “redefine the image of gamers.”
But the film does not. While praise be to its female gamer representation and 8-bit visual style, the film doesn’t redefine esports the way it seems to think it does.
Instead Mother Gamer feels, at times, like a two-hour long advertisement. The “brand message” seems to be that the social stigma is undeserved, though it’s presented less subtly as “gaming is like life, gaming is happiness.”
To avoid being a total product placement vehicle, the filmmakers moor the film onto an emotional and entertaining fish-out-of-water story of a working-class single mother desperate to connect with her teenage, professional gamer son Ohm (Tonhon Tantivejakul).
The setup begins with Ohm accidentally betraying his plans to skip an important exam to compete in Korea to our heroine/his mom Benjamas (Phiyada Akkaraseranee). After Benjamas flies her helicopter-parenting all up in his business, Ohm decides to give her the silent treatment until after he’s left for Korea and forfeited a scholarship. This is where the film’s story comes into focus: to stop Ohm, Benjamas forms a rival team. Cue scenes of Benjamas pressing her thumbs onto smartphone screens with passion, fury and a single goal: eliminating her son from the tournament.
The arena for their conflict is Arena of Valor, a Garena game formerly known as RoV that’s massively popular with Thai gamers.
Director Yanyong, whose affinity for tech-driven stories was last on display in 2018’s App War, along with his gaming industry backers seem to want to do for pro gamers what Anthony Bourdain did for chefs. Rather than grubby artisans toiling in obscurity, gamers are professionals worthy of respect and celebrity, Mother Gamer seems to argue,
Will I fawn over professional gamers the way football fans do over David Beckham after sitting through the film? Probably not. Were there moments that made me empathize with and respect gamers and their specific human condition more? Not many, but a few worth noting.
There’s a running gag involving player mom’s teammate Maprang (Weeraya Zhang of girl idol group BNK48), in which she is forced to sex herself up on camera to win viewers. A welcome acknowledgement of the sexism rampant across the gaming world, it was satisfying when, in the film’s third act, Benjamas insists that Maprang can wear whatever she prefers. Subtle, possibly overly so to be seen as kowtowing to fanboy rage, but it was emblematic of the film’s overall goodwill toward female representation.
Indeed, normalizing a single, working mother without erasing the struggles of raising a child alone is deserving of praise. Seeing her as an identifiable female character battling for victory in esports tournaments deserves even greater credit for an industry still reeking six years on from the taint of #gamergate’s misogyny and sexism.
However, the film’s style over substance approach deserves fewer plaudits.
In one of the first scenes, Benjamas looks through her mail while the camera pans in discrete clicks, with a ticking sound akin to a clock blaring over it. The scene was neither about the passage of time, the mundanity of afternoons ticking away, nor coming full circle. The device never really pays off – but it looked cool. There are many moments like this.
Regardless, I enjoyed the style more than hated it, though I have trouble calling the 8-bit arcade Edgar Wright-esque stylizations a cinematic innovation. After all, Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World just brought the same look to Thai theaters earlier this year (And, yes, while the English director’s 2010 film also worshipped at the altar of style, it was just much more enjoyable). It didn’t serve the theme of Mother Gamer.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film’s final payoff falls short when its message of placing happiness above traditional metrics of success falls flat between contrived and unconvincing.
The arc of the mother-son relationship, delivered in some final moments meant to be poignant, don’t work because it takes Benjamas just too far from the authoritarian, emotionally abusive Dragon Mom presented in its opening scenes.
No child would thank their mother for playing a game with them – a meaningful gesture, granted — after decades of abuse. And before anyone one ducks for cover under “cultural differences,” or “this is how Asian parents are’ – no tradition justifies emotionally abusive relationships. The end result is that Benajamas’ redemption-through-gaming arc feels undeserved, which may undercut the film’s intentions to sway public opinion on gaming.
Rated for audiences 15+, ‘Mother Gamer’ is in theaters now.