Mother is something of a puzzle. I’m a huge fan of Bong Joon-ho’s previous films, Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), but I knew enough not to expect the same again. In the event, Mother seems closest to Memories of Murder – but there are significant differences. Perhaps the most important difference re both the earlier films is that they explored their generic mixes in the context of recognisable social/political issues which attracted large local audiences as well as discerning overseas fans. Mother too has been very popular locally, but so far I haven’t found any explanation of connections to specific local social/political issues.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
In a small town, Do-joon is a young man in his twenties still living with his mother. He has learning difficulties in the form of problems with his short-term memory and is easily manipulated by his friend Jin-Tae. After an initial incident when Do-joon is the victim of a hit-and-run incident, the narrative fully kicks into gear when he is arrested for the murder of a young girl. His mother, who runs a shop selling herbal remedies and an unlicensed acupuncture service, immediately springs to his defence. Her son is imprisoned and the authorities and the legal counsel she hires seem fairly disinterested in pursuing any detailed investigation. Do-joon is held on circumstantial evidence and his mother is on her own, at least initially. Will she find the real murderer?
We shouldn’t be surprised that, as a major South Korean box-office film, Mother looks terrific with stunning camerawork, great performances and a fine music score (from Lee Byung-woo) and sound design. Several familiar elements are in place – a jaundiced view of the local cops, a character with learning difficulties, an almost Kurosawa-like obsession with extreme weather and a detailed view of small town life. As one of the lawyers says, “the fee we are charging wouldn’t cover an incident over two broken teeth in Seoul”. (In fact a tooth does get knocked out later on.)
So, are we being suckered into an art cinema/genre play – or is there more to it? The genre appears to be the Hitchcockian thriller, possibly the ‘wrong man’ scenario. If the mother had been a young woman it might have been a romance thriller. American critics such as Roger Ebert appear to accept it as a refreshing Hitchcock thriller that doesn’t do what is expected – and despite (or perhaps because of) its length (129 minutes) and leisurely pacing, leaves several questions still not answered.
The confirmation of what I suspected comes from Bong’s own statement in the Press Pack. His focus is on the mother-son relationship and what happens if a mother who will do anything for her son is placed in the position of the disinterested investigator that we usually get in these kinds of films. In casting Kim Hye-ja, a veteran Korean TV actor best-known to millions of Koreans as a character in a long-running series The Rustic Diary (1980-2002), Bong ensured that his Korean audience would be immediately drawn to the character speculating how far she would go. Kim began her career in 1963 and Bong clearly saw that although she might appear to be fragile, she has inner strength and enormous psychological strength. Added to her performance, Bong’s meticulous attention to detail in the setting explains the popularity of a film that in the West is deemed ‘arthouse’. The son is played by Won Bin, who starred in a previous Korean blockbuster, Taegukgi (Brotherhood, 2004) and is described as an attractive ‘every mother’s son’. One of the female characters says that he has the most beautiful eyes – “like a deer’s”.
Trevor Johnson’s review in Sight and Sound (September 2009) is perceptive in recognising that the central performances are situated in a narrative in which South Korea comes across as a worryingly dysfunctional society with men who are complacent, incompetent or brutal and women who have had to find ways to cope. The mother’s situation (the absence of the father is never explained) creates issues for her investigation in terms of what she has done in the past and what she is prepared to do now. The final scenes are important and worth reflecting on. (The only flaw in the film’s construction that I could see is that she suddenly seems to have money at a crucial juncture – but perhaps I missed something?)
So, I think that the puzzle is solved. Bong is a genuine auteur of popular cinema, a highly skilled craftsman with a good sense of how to engage his Korean audience with intelligent films that fruitfully explore generic pleasures in the service of understanding human relationships in societal contexts. I won’t forget Kim Hye-ja’s performance and what it stands for.