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

2010 Glennies, Part 4: Best Actress

#5: Annette Bening – Nic, The Kids Are All Right

This film didn’t quite do it for me, and reminded me that I sometimes have to catch myself from thinking that the best performances of the year will invariably fall within the best films. But while Lisa Cholodenko’s sex comedy/family drama was not without its flaws (particularly in the second half), Annette Bening’s performance as the conservative “patriarch” of this surprisingly* conventional family was immaculate. She completely sold her ever-changing reactions to the introduction of her kids’ birth-father (Mark Ruffalo), treating him first like a looming threat to her primacy, then laughing and drinking wine with him and the family. This is a completely authentic character, and Bening’s delivery of dramatic outbursts and comedic barbs alike was spot-on. Her chemistry with Julianne Moore felt mostly believable – it had a kind of comfort and ease, just like an old married couple.

She also completely nails the best two lines in the film, which I won’t spoil here.

*By the standards of quirky indie film, that is.

#4: Carey Mulligan – Kathy, Never Let Me Go

I’ve seen Carey Mulligan play cheerful, but I’ve seen her play somber much more frequently. While I may eventually reach a point of wanting to see a wider range from this actress, I found every dour moment of her screentime in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go to be completely compelling. This film relied heavily on tone, and Mulligan’s performance and chemistry with her fellow leads (Keira Knightley in particular) helped maintain the film’s bleak and somber atmosphere without ever letting the audience lose emotional touch with the characters. These are wretched and pitiable creatures, and it is Mulligan’s heart and compassion that keeps the audience caring for them right to the end.

#3: Hailee Steinfeld – Mattie Ross, True Grit

An early scene in True Grit features Mattie Ross in hardball negotiations with a stable owner over her late father’s horses. Her unrelenting performance amid rapid-fire dialogue in this scene would have been enough to get 13-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld a supporting nod from me, but the Academy be damned – this is unquestionably a lead performance. Steinfeld is in every scene of True Grit, and the film could not have succeeded without such a mature and charismatic take on this character. Mattie Ross is articulate, intimidating, and a bit of a gadfly, and has to keep up with powerful characters three times her age without ever overstaying her welcome with the audience. It’s a tall order, but Steinfeld completely pulls it off. Her rapport with Jeff Bridges was admirable, treading some fascinating ground between road-trip comedy and an intense father-daughter bond. This film is a delight, and it owes much of its appeal to Steinfeld.

#2: Natalie Portman – Nina Sayers, Black Swan

The effectiveness of Nina Sayers is in both her initial state- the pure and fragile “sweet girl”- and her incredible mental and physical transformation. Natalie Portman not only sold both aspects of the character, but fearlessly committed to all the pain and revulsion – bordering on body horror – that she must experience. Portman’s chemistry and frightful interactions with her fellow players (Barbara Hershey in particular) become increasingly fascinating as Nina descends into full-blown schizophrenic madness. Along with Aronofsky’s direction, this was a performance that would make or break the film, occasionally even compensating for deficits in the screenwriting.

“I’M the Swan Queen!” screams Nina as she embarks on the film’s final performance. And indeed she is. Embodying both the white and black swans, Portman’s performance is complete and unmatched.

#1: Kim Hye-ja – Mother, Mother

It is a rare movie tagline that so adequately captures the tone of a film. For Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother, it was this: “She’ll stop at nothing.” Simple and straight to the point. Kim Hye-ja, an actress primarily from Korean television, gives a tour de force performance as the unnamed titular matriarch. Every one of her character beats rang completely true, from her constant worry about her mentally disabled adult son (Won Bin) to her utter desperation to clear his name for murder. She goes to some alarming lengths as the film goes on, and Kim’s performance completely sold each one of her increasingly heartbreaking decisions. The gorgeous opening scene features Kim breaking into an uneasy dance in the middle of the field, with a very pained expression in her face and body language. The full meaning of this scene becomes apparent later in the film, but from the outset, it is clear that Kim Hye-Ja can convey a great deal of emotion in completely unspoken terms. This is a character that the audience wants the best for at all times, no matter what she becomes.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Jennifer Lawrence as Ree in Winter’s Bone
  • Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Emma Stone as Olive Pendergast in Easy A
  • Marisa Tomei as Molly in Cyrus
  • Julianne Moore as Jules in The Kids Are All Right (Honorable, honorable mention: as Catherine Stewart in Chloe)

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.