"Mother" Review - The Anatomy of a Mother
With 2006's The Host, Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, Snowpiercer, Parasite) created a wonderful monster movie that besides working as a political-ecological commentary, was a heroic tale about the power of family love in the face of tragedy. Interestingly enough, the only family role absent of that tale was that of the mother.
Three years later, Joon-ho would focus on that role, with an almost radically different proposal in tone, focus, and structure. Mother (which both in English and Korean can sound like “murder") is a fantastic piece about protective, all-encompassing and unconditional motherly love.
And of course, Bong Joon-ho's views about motherhood had to be intense and relentless.
To better represent the dynamics between the clumsy child and the protective mother, Joon-ho introduces Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin), who is probably the worst possible child for a low-income, timid mother. The exaggerated allegory has very funny (and cruel) moments. Yoon is limited intellectually, shy, with a faulty moral compass and poorly channeled pride that results in violent episodes and drinking problems. But above all things, Yoon is extremely vulnerable, which is the final sentence for his mother, who devotes her life to avoid this big bad world from hurting her son.
Joon-ho's approach is not subtle. We never know the name of the mother. It isn't important because it would be distracting. If she were called Sun, Mary, Petra or Suni we could have imagined other stages of her womanhood. We'd know her as a daughter or a lover. But no, The mother is just that, a mother. And one focused on the labor of healing. She sells medicinal herbs and practices unlicensed acupuncture.
The tragedy begins with the murder of a young female student. The inexperienced and incompetent local police want the case closed as soon as possible, so they quickly link Yoon to the crime scene with sketchy and circumstantial evidence. Using exploitative and unethical interrogation tactics, they trick Yoon into signing a confession.
This mother and son have so much working against them. Scarce economic resources, zero social capital or contacts, no formal education and a documented history of misconduct generated by the previous three. They are vulnerable to larger forces that threaten to crush them.
But the mother, of course, does not easily succumb to the exclusionary system.
This is where the work of Joon-ho gets uniquely genius. The mother's struggle to prove the innocence of her son is a skillful magnification of the mother-son allegory, especially when the son is starting his independent path. In her search for justice, the mother must place herself in the world of her son, diving headfirst into the generationally unknown where she must face with the eternal parental conflicts and confusions: Sex, drugs, bad company, cultural gaps and a tiny amount of technophobia.
At first, the mother distrusts Jin-tae, her son's best friend. Later, she recruits him for her mission. Through Jin-tae the mother manages to take a look at her son's world. In the process, she is forced to deal with Jin-tae's rampaging hormones and modern technological features such as "sexting".
In the end, her investigative efforts lead her to confront the town's junkyard keeper. A key witness, the scrap dealer confirms her worst fear: Yoon and the young woman had an altercation. After she mocked him, Yoon attacked her, in a childlike but deadly blow. Confused and overwhelmed, Yoon wasn't able to understand the magnitude of his action.
The mother does not know anything other than being a mother. Her love has no place for logic. Desperate and in denial of the overwhelming reality, the mother decides to destroy the only character weaker than her. After killing the old man in cold blood, she burns the whole junkyard in order to erase all evidence.
Joon-ho enters full-blown Darwinism toward the end. The incompetent police have found another scapegoat, another young intellectually disabled man that "fits more" the required profile. The mother, confused, confronts the new culprit. Devastated, she certifies that this man is just another victim of the system, one without parents who can vouch for his innocence. Still knowing this, she decides to save her own son. The mother has preyed on the weak, destroying another excluded mother’s son.
What's Your Rating For Mother?
In the end, the mother has given everything for her son. Because, contrary to popular belief, life is not the most precious thing for a mother; more valued by far is the ability to possess the moral authority needed to protect her child's path. That precious legacy transcends mortality.
But the mother no longer has authority, nor moral, much less legacy. Like nothing happened, her son ends up sending her on a vacation trip with other parents. The final blow comes in the form of an acupuncture kit box. Yoon found it in the burned junkyard where the mother mistakenly left it abandoned. He even gives her an unintentional condescending warning about missing items.
At this point, Kim Hye-Ja's performance is masterful. It's clear: The mother is defeated in every way. Her son, though still having no clue about life, unknowingly checkmates her. He has removed evidence of the crime. He has saved her from the possibility of facing justice for a crime that, unlike her son’s, she perpetrated with great lucidity. The son, who has no right to live with impunity, is now the one who protects her.
In the end, there is only evasion. In a busload of parents dancing and immersed in their lighter worlds, the mother decides to apply herself an acupuncture needle at the exact point where she thinks will cause her memory loss.
We don't know if she manages to do it. It doesn't matter. The mother dances, in a denial trance, blocking the sun with her movements.
It's the final stage of a failed motherhood.
Title: Mother / Madeo
Release Year: 2009
Director(s): Joon-ho Bong
Writer(s): Joon-ho Bong, Eun-kyo Park
Actors: Hye-ja Kim, Won Bin, Goo Jin, a.o.
Runtime: 2 hours 9 minutes
© 2019 Sam Shepards