Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Mother"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

Still from "Mother" (2009 film)

I toyed with a few different intros for Bong Joon-Ho’s 2009 film Mother. I thought about how – despite my thorough enjoyment of his film Parasite a decade later – there were layers of that film that I was simply unequipped to understand without being from Korea myself. And several Korean and Korean-American writers (here, here) and one (not Korean) YouTube chef (here) were quite kind enough to educate me about some of those details after the fact. Mother certainly has Korea-specific content – in addition to the film’s prominent use of acupuncture as a plot device, one plot point revolves around a cell phone that has been modded to be a “pervert phone”, so that it can take photos without making a >65dB fake shutter sound. Every American mobile phone already had (and still has) this capability, but this is illegal in both Japan and South Korea. An attempt was made to make it illegal in the US in 2009, but this went nowhere. But the film’s Korean content (at least, what I was able to pick up on) does a good job of explaining itself in-context in the film.

But even without that additional context, I’ve still had to regard Mother predominantly – then as now – as a film about the complex and fraught decision-making that is an inexorable part of being a parent, as well as a hard-boiled detective story featuring a 60-something unnamed Mother (Kim Hye-ja) as its protagonist. And while 2009 Glenn was certainly capable of (hypothetically) appreciating stories about parenthood, I was here for the old lady detective, because of an American hero named Angela Lansbury. And like Jessica Fletcher, Mother has a personal stake in solving the murder of a teenage girl named Moon Ah-jung (Moon Hee-ra), because her adult son Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin) is arrested and charged with the crime. Which, considering he had a recent history of violence (beating the crap out of some hit-and-run-driving professors on a golf course), and a golf ball with his name on it was found at the scene of the crime, and he signed a confession with only minimal coercion (some theatrical apple-punching) by the local police, it’s hard to argue with this outcome.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, Do-joon is mentally handicapped, which makes him an easy scapegoat. Watching Mother interact with Do-joon in the first act of the film understandably feels familiar to me as, as Do-joon exhibits many child-like tendencies, and Mother’s interactions with him often have a similar character to the interactions I have with my kids. There’s just a certain stoicism that develops around dealing with your children’s bodily functions. Embarrassment goes out the window, even as the child insists on discussing or exhibiting their bathroom habits as loudly as possible. This is understandably uncommon to see in an interaction between a parent and their adult child, and Mother takes this to excess at times. There is a scene where Do-joon is pissing on a wall next to a bus stop, and Mother – who is initially staring directly at his crotch for reasons that are unclear even in the moment – is pouring broth into his mouth. An overhead shot shows liquid draining from the bowl into his mouth, and liquid draining away into the gutter: an efficient machine. Do-joon also sleeps in his mother’s bed, and multiple characters in the film suggest that their relationship has a Freudian dimension to it (hard to argue with the film’s intentions after that alley scene). As with calling Do-joon the ‘R’-word, impugning his relationship with Mother is a trigger for him to immediately lash out with violence against whatever impudent motherfucker (tee hee) thought this was a wise thing to say to him.

Still from "Mother" (2009 film)

As a parent in the intervening years, there were certainly dimensions of this parent-child relationship that I could identify with. But that’s not to say the film presents it as a healthy one. Mother’s exact motivations and psychology are picked apart over the course of the film as she watches her son go through the struggle of being sent to jail, and Kim’s performance takes on more dimensions. What is the depth of a parent’s despair? Is Mother’s stoicism a mask for grief? Guilt for her mistakes and indefensible choices? Anger at how her life turned out? On top of all of these feelings, specific to this film and character, I felt something universal – something that all parents feel at some point: an abiding responsibility for what kind of child you’ve put out into the world. When you teach your children to stand up for themselves, assert their will, and also respect and show empathy to other people, is it ever possible to strike the right balance? Surely, in their heart of hearts, every parent thinks their child is special on some level, or at least wants the rest of the world to treat their child in a special way. We’ve seen what this looks like when it goes horribly wrong. It’s easy to look at the sociopathic children of distant, rich assholes, and judge accordingly. Don Jr. literally wrote (and then purchased thousands of copies of) the book on this. But what do we make of the far more numerous monsters that appear without a clear (or at least externally obvious) cause? The people whose parents and friends are just as shattered by their actions as the families and friends of their victims? Seventeen years after the Columbine High School shooting – a formative event during my teenage years, but surely lost in the fog of innumerable massacres since for today’s kids – Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the school shooters, wrote a book and spoke publicly about her experience for the first time. Her book is an exhaustive chronicle of mental illness in adolescence, suicidal and homicidal ideation, and the impossible task of picking up the pieces of a shattered family life. Moreover, it is a thoughtful and humble personal narrative from a subject who knows that she is unsympathetic to many people. I haven’t yet finished it (as I only read a few chapters in preparation for this writing), but it’s a fascinating read, if only for the singularity of Klebold’s experience and the rarity of its candor about a thoroughly taboo subject.

Because…what do we care what the mother of a killer has to say? She’s obviously responsible for whatever her kid did. She obviously should’ve known and prevented it, as any of us would’ve done! To be clear, I’m not expressing these attitudes sincerely, but to say that this is the clear and obvious push-back that Mother is dealing with as she conducts her investigation throughout the film – that in her small town, even with the apparent murderer of an innocent girl behind bars, a villain still remains: the Mother who spawned him, the free and visible face of his actions, the societal standard-bearer of his original sin. And what’s more, she’s trying to release him back into the community! How dare she. Mother is as thoroughly alone in this film as it is possible to be, and as Kim’s psychological and emotional performance lays out the complete history of this character’s mental load, it’s clear that her solitude is nothing new. Do-joon’s father hasn’t been in the picture since he was very young, and his only friend is a local scumbag named Jin-tae (Jin Goo), whom Mother initially suspects of the killing, and who may only be helping her in the hopes of extorting some money. Jin-tae’s exact motivations are kept nice and nebulous even as we first meet him – when Do-joon gets sideswiped by a Mercedes-Benz and his friend scoops him up off the street to head to the golf course (the only destination in town for a Benz!) and thoroughly beat the ass of whoever was driving. And why is he doing this? *shrug* Loyalty, boredom, a desire to watch his friend fall on his face (something that seems to genuinely amuse him)? When Jo-doon is behind bars, Jin-tae’s continued involvement in the investigation makes him the ideal film noir companion, and Mother clearly picks up on this, as she calls him in for various strongman purposes as the film goes on. 

Kim Hye-ja is really what made this film worth watching, both then and now. She’s a sweet old lady – apparently best known for playing sweet old ladies on Korean soap operas – who contains multitudes. And even as we see both the actress and the character reset the contours of her face repeatedly as the film goes on, it makes the moments where she completely loses control – nearly all of which have to do with the intensity of her relationship with Do-joon – all the more satisfying. This is a film that is more than just the sum of its plot twists, but the plot itself is so satisfying that I’ve uncharacteristically omitted its details here (Bong, along with co-writer Park Eun-kyo, won or was nominated for multiple awards for the screenplay). After a decade, I had to pull out my Blu-ray copy of the film to watch it (as streaming options were limited), but I sincerely hope that Bong’s recent Oscar gold means that more people will go back to seek out his earlier films, because this is surely one of his best.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

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