You don’t know anything, Mom. — Do-Joon (Won Bin)
“This won’t hurt or I won’t charge you for it.” As she begins her treatment, the acupuncturist (Kim Hye-ja) appears intent and also sensitive, her attentive face revealed in close-up, gazing on her client’s buttocks. Though her business is not precisely legitimate, the acupuncturist has been practicing for decades, along with selling herbs in a back alley shop. After a prick, the needles slide in, bringing relief, maybe even resolution, for what ails.
As she works, the acupuncturist and her client, Je-moon (Yoon Je-moon), discuss the acupuncturist’s 27-year-old son, Do-Joon (Won Bin). He’s troubled, sometimes seeming slow, other times just sullen and distracted. “His eyes are a work of art, like a deer’s,” says Je-moon. “They’re just like yours, they’re beautiful.” The acupuncturist smiles, as Do-Joon is in fact, her primary focus and point of identification, indeed, the reason she’s the center of a movie called Mother (Madeo). If she doesn’t exactly dote on the boy, she does look after him rather closely: each night she makes his dinner and they share a bed, the camera peering down on them from above, so you can see their similarly slender figures, arranged to show their intimacy is not sexual or even very sensual. It is, however, all consuming.
Unlike some other films that take up such a dynamic (say, Psycho), Bong Joon-ho’s iteration tends to focus on the unnamed title character’s perspective. It’s plain from the start that she spends too much energy looking at and cleaning up after Do-Joon: in an early scene, he’s hit by a car as she watches from across the street, a bit of chaos she sprints to contain. Not only is Mother remarkably spry, but she’s also insistently expressive: she wails at her son’s misfortune, pounds the window of a car he gets into, then continues to flail her arms in anguish as the vehicle drives away. He is equally determined however, to display his toughness in front of his friends and put off his mom. A few minutes later, he and his best friend Jin-tae (Jin Goo) are cruising a parking lot in search of the vehicle that ran him down, with an eye toward wreaking revenge. This leads to trouble with the police, and still more need of intervention by Mother.
Little can she know how deep Do-Joon’s trouble will be. Even as Mother lays out his resentments of authority and co-dependency with his mom, he spends a night out: he drinks too much at a local café, he’s mad at Jin-tae, and he accosts a schoolgirl, Mina (Woo-hee Cheon), wearing a blue backpack. His behavior is erratic and his mien dour, so when he’s accused the next morning of murdering that girl with the backpack, you’re not sure what to think.
Mother, by contrast, knows exactly what to think. The cops are wrong and her son is innocent, in fact, incapable of committing such barbarity. (The bloody body, head caved in with a rock, has been left in plain view, hung over a rooftop railing.) Mother’s efforts to vindicate Do-Joon lead her to hire a lawyer, the unctuous Gong Suk-ho (Moo-yeong Yeo), who charges lots of money but performs minimally. His lack of interest in the case is underscored when Mother visits him in a bar, surrounded by buxom women and wealthy men in suits, a veritable portrait of systemic corruption.
When the cops also shut her down, insisting the case is closed and Do-Joon is their man, Mother makes it her own mission to discover the truth. Her investigation leads her into closets and abandoned factories, as well as confrontations with brutes, drunks, and cynics. Her world is turned upside down, sort of, as she always suspected such a dire underneath, indicated in her fierce, not always sensible protection of Do-Joon.
To meet her ends, Mother enlists Jin-tae, crafty, persuasive, and utterly savage, capable of extracting information from Mina’s classmates swiftly and without compunction. Mother keeps watch on such proceedings from a slight distance — much as she watched Do-Joon from across the street — her gaze fixed on what turns out to be a show of nasty violence. Exposed to dreadful goings-on and tragedy, she doesn’t flinch, but thinks her way through, coming up with mostly practical responses, as well as a few dreadful acts herself.
It’s in such moments, when seeming plot sense gives way to operatic, even funny, excess, when images of blood and pain achieve a sort of exquisiteness, that you most fully appreciate this film’s brilliance, its entangling of themes and images. As inMemories of Murder and even more clearly in The Host, the frames in Mother are composed so elegantly they tell a story quite beyond the literal events. Murder and sex are occasions for contemplation — of cause and effect, consumption and responsibility. For the question the film comes back to repeatedly has to do with watching, and consequentially, knowing. As Mother watches, protectively, suspiciously, and relentlessly, she comes to know a kind of truth, so do you. Your version may not exactly hers, but neither seems less or more true than the other.