Canon Entry - Mother (2009)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Do-joon (Won Bin) and his mother (Kim Hye-ja) live in their own separate world. They stick out like sore thumbs wherever they go - Do-joon because of his mental disability and Mother (she’s never named in this film) because of her unshakable conviction in the goodness of her son. Characters are perturbed by both of them because their behavior is so strange and specific. Though many mother-son relationships, especially among Korean people, seem similar to this one in dynamic, it is taken to its darkest, most twisted extreme in Mother.
When Do-joon is accused of the murder of a schoolgirl, we are swept into what we think is a procedural drama with Mother acting as detective. She is forced to assume this role when the trusted institutions of society fail to give her son even a fair trial or a proper investigation. Even the fancy-pants lawyer she hires drunkenly tells her that she should just accept a plea bargain deal in which Do-joon will serve four years in a mental hospital. She deems this unacceptable and sets out to make things right on her own. Because no one is on her side. How could anyone be? No one is as invested in her son as she is, not even the son himself.
What follows is a twisted noir in which Mother has to immerse herself into the seedy underbelly of a relatively small town. Just like a noir, Mother has colorful characters and narratives that lead to or touch upon other narratives. While Western noirs tend to focus heavily on dialogue, Bong opts for striking images. The image of the dead girl hanging over a balcony in plain view of the whole town. The water bottle slowly spilling its contents and alerting a sleeping man that someone has broken into his house. The images often serve to strengthen the dialogue. There is almost always something dynamic happening to accentuate the dialogue such as the overpriced lawyer walking and eating at the same time as he talks to Mother. For a non-fantastical narrative, this film dazzles with its dynamic, gripping style.
Grounding this film is Kim Hye-ja, one of the most respected actors in South Korea. She is one of those actors that I feel everyone can recognize. I personally think she looks like my aunt. The attention that she gives to her son is so familiar that I felt myself squirming under her intense care even though i wasn’t the subject of it. No one could have been a more unlikely protagonist of a noir than Kim Hye-ja. She is such a naturally sympathetic actress that we root for her even though she objectively does some really horrible things. Some of these actions include going to the dead girl’s funeral and declaring her son’s innocence loudly and breaking into the house of someone she suspects. Though Kim Hye-ja has played a wide variety of roles in her long career, she is definitely playing against type in this film; anyone who is even just a smidge less sympathetic would have ruined the balance this film strikes between style and realism.
One of the trademarks of Bong Joon-ho’s films is the clash of tones. The Host may be the most obvious example in which he switches between soap opera to action thriller to broad comedy on a dime, sometimes in the same frame. Some find this to be jarringly alien to their moviegoing sensibilities, while others appreciate the novelty and the weirdness of his tonal whiplash. Mother is definitely one of Bong’s more controlled films, but even in this film we can see broad comedy exist alongside dark, existential dread.
I do not see this clash of tones as a weakness on Bong’s part, although I will admit that it doesn’t always work for me (Okja). Some might think it is because he has no control over how his film is presented, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In any lesser director’s hand, this movie would have been a straightforward crime thriller/sappy melodrama and would have been instantly forgotten. When Bong uses tone, it is for sharp observations of people. When Bong portrayed some of the poor people and people with mental illness, I definitely had an issue with such portrayals. It seemed that Bong is dipping into common stereotypes about such people. However, I think he saves his most acerbic observations for the men in power, men most movies take seriously whether they are heroes or villains. The police are bumbling, incompetent fools. The lawyer is the worst example of elite cronyism and predatory attitudes. No one escapes Bong’s keen eye.
I think what makes this film work is that it is actually more concerned with character than the typical genre elements, even though those are executed well. We are encouraged to view all the events from Mother’s eyes, even if we think that she is a flawed character and possibly a very unreliable narrator. We can view all of this film, even possibly the ending, as purely an underdog tale. But we could also see this as a portrait of a very disturbed woman, who may not be mentally disabled like her son, but she is subject to the same emotionality and hot temper that her son is guilty of. The brilliant thing is that we can have it both ways. All of Bong’s techniques, including the clash of tones, serve to make this a compelling, dirty genre picture that can evoke any number of responses in its viewers.