This Woman’s Work: Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Mother’

Mother (Madeo)
Bong Joon Ho
16 May 2009 (Cannes)

They call it a “maternal instinct”. By its assumed inherent nature, it suggests nurturing and protection. Taken to extremes, however, it could mean suffocating and domineering – after all, it’s not called “smothering” someone for nothing. Still, when her resolve is against the wall and her offspring are threatened, the female of any species will bristle and battle back with murderous precision. In a fascinating follow-up to his glorious 2006 giant monster movie The Host, Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho has decided to combine familial dysfunction with a quirky whodunit to create Mother. Featuring a fabulous lead performance from Asian TV star Kim Hye-ja and a twisting turning narrative that never gives away its intricate secrets, the results transcend the type to literally rewrite the genres being referenced.

Our harried heroine works in a medicinal herb shop. She also does a little illegal acupuncture on the side. As a single parent, she worries about her mentally challenged son Do-joon. He’s slow, quick to forget, and easily taken advantage of – especially by his ne’er do well best buddy Jin-tae. One night, after some drunken fun, Do-joon follows a frightened school girl down a dark back alley. The next day, she is found dead, and he is the lead suspect. Thanks to police incompetence, a open and shut investigation, and a shady high profile lawyer, Do-joon is framed and sent to prison. For her part, his mother believes he is innocent, and proceeds to follow-up forgotten leads and legitimate red herrings in a quest for the truth. What she’s not prepared for, however, are the many secrets she herself is keeping, or the depths she will sink in order to save her only son.

Told in two hour long movements and mesmerizing in its adept intricacies, Mother (now on DVD and Blu-ray from Magnolia Home Entertainment) is a major triumph for a man already used to accolades. As far back as the brilliant Memories of Murder, Bong has been a major force in Eastern cinema, and while geek culture embraced his gonzo Godzilla spoof, this is the movie that will cement his myth. Not unlike David Lynch delivering Blue Velvet, this is an artistic statement of profound filmic vitality. It’s like a homage to Hitchcock retrofitted with some obvious bows to many in the post-modern mimic brigade. There are hints of Dario Argento, Brian DePalma, and John Carpenter sprinkled throughout, topped off by two sensational acting jobs at the center. Together, they take the story of one woman’s journey toward justice and drop it on its pointed little psychological horror head.

As our mad matron, Kim Hye-ja is genius. She’s clearly a short skip away from completely crazy, maintaining social standing while subverting the system. We learn of her various minor misdeeds through innuendo only – a warning from the snotty owner of the shop, a common acknowledgement and shaky alliance with the local police. But there is something more to her meaning that just flaunting the law. This mother has a deep dark issue gnawing at her core, an action we see in short flashback that goes unexplained until her son suddenly “remembers”. The reveal is just one of this movie’s many upending delights. One minute we are on the trail of the victim’s tainted Lolita-like backstory, the next our leads are screaming at each other in painful familiarity.

For his part, Won Bin takes the difficult role of confused progeny to heart. He’s not as mannered as some Hollywood hack (though he does overdo the stutter sometimes), but we never think that Do-joon is truly handicapped. In fact, the issue hidden between himself and his mother could be the reason for his oddly diminished capacity. The dynamic between the baby-faced boy and his intellectual shortcomings may be nothing more than a necessary plot point, but Won works it for everything he can (with ample assistance from Bong). It’s what makes us cheer on his guardians actions – and what shocks us when some unsavory details emerge. The rest of the cast do their best to match the magic of the leads, but it’s the director himself who seems challenged time and time again – and with each test he triumphs.

In fact, had the mystery never really been solved (and one could legitimately argue that it’s not, considering the source of some of the most important facts) and we were simply witness to the unusual vibrancy between determined protector and marginalized son, Mother would still be amazing. Because of the setting, because of the unusual position both people are in, we would enjoy the biological back and forth, the unsettling inferences and the individual perspectives at byplay. As a director, Bong is excellent at giving each of his characters necessary space. Whenever Mother or her son need their own moment, he steps up and delivers something delightful…or devastating.

While it may seem like a clash of uncultured wills, or better yet, a struggle between simpleminded wits, Mother is actually an indictment of the love/hate elements inside parenthood. There are allusions toward the incestual way our heroine harps on her son (they do share the same bed, though nothing sexual is openly suggested) and she purposefully grimaces when he mentions girls. There are regrets for his birth and proclaimed desperation for the life he’s caused them to lead. But there’s a child-like quality to these perceived evils. Even when talking to his buddy Jin-tae, Do-joon is obsessed with sex the way children are – it smacks of ultimate pleasure, and perhaps, the ultimate “F-you” to his selfish relative. Yes, the character comes across as creepy, but it’s in an equally disquieting subservient way. When Mother suggests her son would never hurt a water bug, she has a point. A flirtatious young schoolgirl, however…

As it deliberately stumbles toward its denouement, when all the pieces of the puzzle almost fit, Bong decides to end Mother in a way meant to seal the psycho-familial deal. If Do-joon was looking for a way to be free of his overbearing guardian, he discovers a doozy. If our lead wants to finally let go and realize that she’s been mistakenly making up for something her son no longer truly cares about, she can. There’s a final shot, a moment of ancient medicine indicative of this decision, and by offering up said sequence, Bong becomes a major movie making superstar. Memories of Murder may have put him on the international artform map and The Host may have hit a nerve with nerds everywhere, but Mother is where this filmmaker finally comes into his own – and the results are resplendent.

RATING 8 / 10