Film Review: Mother

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‘You and me are one…’

(Mother, Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2009, 128mins)

Mother is disjointed, confusing and a muddle. But that’s what makes it an excellent film.

The South Korean director, Bong Joon ho, breaks up the narrative in order to produce certain psychological effects. He makes the viewer work hard to piece together the plot and understand what’s going on. You question whether it was all a dream? Did everything happen that way, in that order?

In the opening the Mother character stumbles through a deserted field towards the screen; she begins to dance to peaceful music, making shapes with her arms and covering different parts of her body at a time. This behaviour is unusual and the scene is almost dream like. Your mind becomes overwhelmed with questions: you want to know why she is doing this? Where has she come from? Where is she going? Why is she there?

Absolute answers are never reached but the fragmented parts of the film come together to make a full circle: ending almost where it started. The first scene sets the film up; the audience will observe characters that are off balance, bizarre and perhaps insane. The audience understands what possesses the Mother to dance in this scene, when they see it for a second time. With more background her character, her motions conveys how unstable and erratic she is. Ultimately it reflects her insanity and need to escape from her life.

It’s often a mother’s nature to feel protective over a child but Bong Joon-ho shows how a step too far can lead to doing things you never thought you were capable of. This psychological suspense thriller follows a 59 year old Mother whose only love in life is her simple-minded son, Yoon Do-joon. Her watchful eye rarely leaves sight of her beloved offspring, but when it does she becomes erratic. Yoon Do-joon is accused of a schoolgirl’s murder; and with a town full of incompetent cops, exploitative lawyers and corrupt citizens, his Mother has no other option than to become the detective herself.

Bong Joon-ho is known to convey a mixture of brutality, murder, corruption and love in his work. His 2003 feature; Memories of Murder, has similar themes to Mother; a young girl is murdered and the detectives are portrayed as hopeless, stupid and ignorant people. This negative attitude towards detectives is continued in Mother. At the murder scene they investigate the surrounding half heartedly and the nature of forensics is explored with an element of black-comedy attached to it; the detectives laugh at the position the young girl has been left in. Bong Joon-ho is influenced by his South Korean background and many of his films are based on true cases that occurred in his country. He may well be mocking the military dictatorship that once ruled over South Korea; reflecting how corrupt the system was and potentially still is. With this in mind, it is questionable whether the film could work without this South Korean origin. Being based on true events and influenced greatly by his country’s history, I don’t think that another director could execute Mother in the same manner.

The fragmented format of Mother reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s distorted style of storytelling in Memento. The audience see snippets of conversation, thought and action and try to piece them together to come to a comprehensive understanding of the plot. It isn’t until the end, or in fact another viewing of Memento, that the plot becomes easier to depict. Mother is less complicated, it moves from memory, to reality to dream, one after the next. The audience don’t quite know which is which but it doesn’t hurt your head as much. Bong Joon-ho uses flashback earlier in the film, which appear to be random and insignificant…until later.

The Mother visits her son on several occasions while he is in prison, hoping he will remember what happened the night of the girl’s murder and be able to prove he didn’t kill her. She asks him to rub his temples as she believes it will help conjure his memory. The flashback that felt rather random before now makes sense. It was of a small South Korean boy, looking up at his mother as a young child. It was Yoon Do-joon. He has remembered a past that his mother would rather have kept a secret.

Earlier on, the audience watch a drunken Yoon Do-joon follow a young girl home. She ends up turning round to see his face, clutches her books tightly and runs into an abandoned building for refuge. She throws a huge rock at Yoon Do-joon, clearly rejecting his implications. Yoon Do-joon is upset and confused so walks home and climbs into his mother’s bed in need of comfort – he moves his hand over her breast. This unsettling scene shows how disturbed both son and mother are. The next day the girl is found dead. This scene is re-analysed by the Mother and a neighbour when she becomes engrossed in her investigation. The scene is slowed down and rewound; Yoon Do-joon and the young school girl are seen walking backwards and details that weren’t so obvious before are now staring the audience in the face…

Is that what actually happened? Was it all a dream? Did everything happen like that, in that order?

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