PRINT March 2010


Bong Joon-ho’s Mother

BONG JOON-HO’S MOTHER is not as great a movie as the director’s devastating police procedural Memories of Murder (2003) or as entertainingly edgy as The Host (2006), which pits South Korea’s favorite actor, Song Kang-ho, against a rapacious mutant sea monster with a knack for parkour, who grows to Godzilla-like proportions feasting on pollutants tossed into Seoul’s Han River by the resident American military. But in the larger scheme of things—that is to say, movies in general and Korean cinema in particular—Mother attempts something far more difficult and taboo: a non-judgmental depiction of an overprotective, middle-aged mom driven to madness by a society in which über-masculinity is practically a precondition for survival.

Set in a rural backwater similar to the milieu of Memories of Murder, Mother, too, revolves around a murder investigation. In both movies, the iconic victims are young and female, picked off while nervously walking alone late at night through field, forest, or alleyway. There’s a touch of Grimm’s fairy tale in these roads to nowhere and in the punishment that befalls the women who have no choice but to travel them. Based on an actual series of ritualized slayings, Memories focuses on a team of incompetent, ill-equipped local cops and the sophisticated big-city detective sent to help them apprehend the killer, who strikes half a dozen times before disappearing. (If anything, the film seems even stronger today, when viewed in tandem with David Fincher’s similarly melancholy and intense Zodiac [2007], which bears more than a trace of Bong’s influence.) In Mother, by contrast, there is only one murder to be solved and, for all practical purposes, only one detective (and an amateur one at that).

When mentally disabled Do-joon (Won Bin) is arrested and speedily confesses to killing a teenage girl, his mother (Kim Hye-ja) relentlessly attempts to track down the real criminal—the only way she can prove her son’s innocence. Do-joon may be twenty-seven, but he has the impulse control and the intellectual capacity of a child. Eking out a living selling herbal medicines and illegally practicing acupuncture, Mother lives for her son alone. On the one hand, she tries to teach him to stand up for himself in a brutal world. Her instructions—wallop anyone who insults you and “if they hit you once, hit back twice”—are guaranteed to get the boy in trouble. On the other hand, her infantilization of Do-joon has an equally negative effect on his possible development. Bong doesn’t shy away from the depiction of their symbiosis. In one squirm-inducing sequence, Mother finds Do-joon in the street, pissing against a wall. Holding a bowl of medicinal broth to his lips, she glues her eyes on his penis (blocked from the camera’s view) and discreetly attempts to sop up the urine from the pavement with the sole of her shoe.

Is she mad? Yes, of course, and her investigation, which turns up all kinds of things that she doesn’t want to admit to herself, drives her fully over the edge. She sacrifices her humanity, and the lives of others, not only to save her son but also to prove her love to him. As long as the movie plays out like a case history of maternal madness, it is on firm ground, and Kim’s precisely modulated performance—she carries almost the entire weight of the movie on her slim shoulders and ramrod spine—suggests a psyche imploding in slow motion. But Bong, I think, is up to something else, as evidenced in the final scene, where Mother goes on a bus outing with a bunch of other women. At first, she sits alone, in a near-catatonic stupor while the others blithely dance in the aisle, but after she self-medicates—by applying an acupuncture needle to the point in her inner thigh that induces forgetfulness—she is able to join in the revelry. She is no different from any of them. Selective memory is one of Bong’s major themes, ironically referencing the way the small corruptions of daily life, as well as the extended period of the dictatorship, are expediently forgotten. Here it is the monstrosities committed in the name of motherly love that are obliterated.

In his comments about the film, Bong writes that “the relationship between a son and his mother is the basis for all human relationships.” He goes on to say that he wanted to dig into what is extreme and powerful in this primal bond, “like into the heart of a fireball.” What’s disconcerting about Mother is that while its narrative privileges Mother’s subjectivity, its governing fantasy of maternity is all too familiarly patriarchal. Bong is a gifted and accomplished filmmaker, and the ingeniously edited Mother is never less than compelling, but it also reminds one of how sharply Hitchcock dissected the son’s fantasy of the phallic mother. In Bong’s version, it’s as if Mrs. Bates were alive and taking care of her Norman by any means necessary.

Mother opens in New York on March 12 and nationally on March 19. A retrospective of Bong’s work, “Monsters & Murderers: The Films of Bong Joon-ho,” is on view at BAMcinématek, Brooklyn, New York, February 25–March 1.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.