By Nathanael Griffis
If there were any doubts about Joon-ho Bong’s ability as a director and a writer, which there shouldn’t be, the film Mother puts them to rest. It’s not his best film, but that’s just because he made The Host. It is his most mature film and feels the most composed. Mother deservedly took top honors at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards and Asian Film Awards, but was snubbed at the Oscars despite winning several best foreign film honors in critics circles (just a nomination, Academy, that’s all we’re asking). The film examines the role of motherhood and leaves you with complex questions as to what it means to be a mother. The plot feels simple enough: a mother sets out to prove her son’s innocence in a murder case. The mother naturally has to do some very unmotherly things to save her son (baking cookies doesn’t solve crimes).
Once again, though, it’s the amazing characters that drive the film. Like in Memories of Murder and The Host, the characters in Mother are relatable and unique. Hye-ja Kim, who has won several much deserved awards for this role (including a best actress Award by the LA film critics, not best foreign actress, best actress, so tell me again why the Oscars skipped this one?) as the mother who teeters between overbearing and touching care. I couldn’t help but see something of my own mother in her. She’s really something of an archetype for mothers, but at the same time a distinctly Korean, and distinctly unique, individual all wrapped up into one.
Bin Won as the troubled son Yoon Do-joon stretches his acting ability greatly. Known mostly as an action star, Won gives Do-joon a haunting touch of empathy. Ku Jin is excellent as well in a supporting role as Do-joon’s enimagtic friend Jin-tae. Every character is, as I’ve come to expect from Bong’s films, an honest, raw portrayal of the dichotomy of beauty and horror within the human spirit.
There’s less humor in Mother than in Bong’s previous films. Some of that could be due to the lack of Kang-ho Song, or possibly to Bong’s maturity as a filmmaker, but enough of it remains to give the same conflicted feelings as in previous films. For example, the film opens on the mother walking through a wheat field and then dancing. It’s a strange and daring way to open a film, and I wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. The difference is that in Mother the humor seems to have a clearer purpose. The mother’s dancing at the beginning and some of the jokes throughout, like a reoccurring scene where Do-joon reacts to being called a retard, become thematically resonant as the mystery unfolds.
It is quite a mystery at that. It’s impressive to see how well put together this film is. Joon-ho Bong’s script is meticulous; no scene is wasted. The acting is superb. It’s a strange detective film that follows an older mother around and not some grizzled detective, but this ain’t Murder She Wrote. Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher, despite being a better detective, would probably have ended up mumbling in an asylum in Maine if she was put through this sort of an ordeal. Bong uses the detective mystery motif not just to entertain, but to parallel the characters’ discovery of their own nature. When it ends, it’s not clean and polished. No one is left unmarred, and they discover that human nature, while resilient, is darker than we might want to believe.
I came away from this film with more questions than answers, though none of them pertaining to the plot. It’s the sort of film that makes you pause and look deep inside of yourself. As you connect and relate to each character, you have to challenge that previous connection as they descend further into the consuming madness of their decisions. The ending is absolutely stunning, especially the final shots of the film. It manages to relay a message of hope but leaves you questioning if hope is the right response or simply the necessary one. You’re left wondering which actions, thoughts, decisions, and feelings define one’s being a mother or a son. Even though you’ve just watched a beautiful film portraying this complex relationship, the film’s goal is not to define the relationship but to make the viewer seek it out and ask what it means.
I’m glad that I finished my journey through modern Korean cinema with this film. I think I’ll probably have to write some larger reflective piece on the experience as a whole, but I don’t want to leave them behind. All ten of these films have given me such a respect for Korean filmmaking that it’s all I want to watch now.