Mother (by Bong Joon-ho): force of nature that can’t be pigeon-holed

Bong Joon-ho, “Mother” (2008)

There aren’t many good movies these days where the central character is a middle-aged woman. Of course she’s a mother – most women her age are mothers after all – but never was there a mother like the unnamed Mother (played by Kim Hye-ja) whose protective instincts for her son Do-joon (Won Bin) and sense of justice combine to make her an unstoppable force of nature, resulting in her finding out things she really doesn’t want or need to know, getting into dangerous situations and behaving in ways she’ll later regret. Right from the start, you know Mother is no ordinary woman: the film’s opening scenes set her standing or walking alone in a vast sea of wild greenery, looking as if she’s communing with the spirits of the trees, the earth and the sky; later we see her in her herbal shop, cutting up some strange dried roots and an inspector comes by to chide her for practising acupuncture without a licence. The suggestion that Mother is a throwback to Korea’s shamanic tradition, usually passed down from mother to daughter, is strong. We see Mother going about her business and learn that she has an adult son who might be mentally retarded and is easily led astray by his friend Jin-tae (Jin Gu). An early scene hints that Mother and Do-joon may have an incestuous relationship though perhaps the simplest explanation is that Mother has always had Do-joon in her bed since the day he was born.

Do-joon is accused of beating a teenage schoolgirl to death and is forced to sign a confession by the police. Mother simply cannot believe her son is capable of murder so she enlists the help of police and a lawyer to help clear his name, only to be frustrated at their apathy or incompetence so she resorts to playing detective herself. This investigation leads her into a near-confrontation with gang violence and some seedy information about the teenage victim among other things.

One thing about this movie is that it never settles into one thing or one stereotype about people. Is the film a crime film, a social commentary or a character study thriller? It’s a bit of everything: “Mother” sweeps from one genre to another as Mother impulsively dives into one perilous situation and then another, oblivious to her own safety until actually threatened, at which point she may scuttle somewhere, hide or just lash out instinctively without thought for the consequences. You kind of sense that director Bong himself lost control of the plot at times and allowed his star Kim to drag him and the film crew into wild rural locations which, though beautiful on the screen, were also uncomfortable: in later scenes, Mother treks through mud and marsh just to reach a lone eccentric in his shack and the film crew has to follow. Kim Hye-ja gives everything she has to her role as Mother and holds the whole film together despite her unassuming manner.

In the end (OK, spoiler alert here), the police find the culprit but in a way that suggests that, nasty enough fellow though he is, he has also been tortured into making a confession. By this time, Mother herself has become a changed woman. Her investigations have come to naught but has she learnt something about herself and the people around her? Will Mother be more conforming, more considerate of others, more thoughtful about her actions and their impact on others? Will she be a less attractive character as a result?

As for the other characters, Won as Do-joon gives a good impression as the son who can be amazingly lucid at times yet is clearly immature and needs the kind of guidance that Mother and Jin-tae aren’t able to give. Something about him hints that he may indeed be capable of murder. In short, like Mother he just can’t be pinned down to a good-guy or bad-guy stereotype. Everyone else serves as a means of highlighting the system that victimises Mother and Do-joon as outsiders and leads Mother to commit desperate acts; so folks may appear to be one thing in one situation and then something else again in another. Generally what we see here through “Mother” is Bong’s exploration of a society that is rigid, self-controlled and self-censoring, treating people as things to push around when it wants and demanding much out of them. To survive in such a society, people end up being two-faced: the lawyer is initially officious and demands a hefty fee, then becomes a drunken womaniser; the police are lazy yet quick to punish; teenagers may be good kids at school and at home and still get involved in trading sexual favours.

No wonder that Mother is only really at peace when she is in contact with Nature which becomes an essential character in the movie: there are many scenes with rural or semi-rural backgrounds, all lovingly filmed in a lingering way, so beautiful and so appealing to the eye. If movies could be travelogues for countries, then “Mother” could be one for provincial South Korea, just for the countryside and the picturesque houses alone; as for the people who populate the place, I’m not so sure … Even so, Nature is a pretty hard partner to manage and Mother’s own nature, operating on emotion and intuition, leads her into situations and actions that can be horrific.

There are some really very powerful issues within this movie about the nature of Korean society and the oppression that people like Mother and Do-joon suffer under it, and how it affects the way they think and act and must cope with the consequences of their behaviour.

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