“You and me are one. We’ve only got each other.”
The late 2000s saw a rise in mother-centred thrillers in South Korea. Released after the box office success The Host (2006), Mother (Korean: Madeo, 2009) is a slow burn family drama directed by Bong Joon-ho, which incorporates thriller, noir and satire elements splendidly, making it impossible to find a single label for his work. By dissecting a non-conventional mother-son love story that borders on obsession, the film reminds us slightly of the dynamics of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), but in reverse. Above all, Mother explores the blurry lines between parental love and fixation in an astoundingly gripping way.
An unnamed single mother (Kim Hye Ja) lives with her mentally challenged son Do-Joon (Won Bin) in a small town, making ends meet by selling herbs and providing acupuncture services. Their seemingly quiet life is turned upside down when a young girl is brutally murdered and Do-Joon becomes the prime suspect. He cannot recall the events of the night due to his heavy drinking, but he is convinced his frenemy (Jin Ku) has something to do with it. The burden falls on his mother, who has to uncover the truth and prove her son’s innocence in an ongoing battle with corrupted police officers, lawyers and the small community looking for a scapegoat. Unable to place her trust in anything but her own maternal instincts, she embarks on a journey that holds no guarantee as to where it will lead.
The film is perhaps the subtlest sample of Bong Joon Ho’s filmography so far. The same notion of family love from The Host (2006) is presented here, along with a sense of a thriller mystery found in iconic Memories of Murder (2003). However, the colours are purposefully on the dark grey or blue side, adding to the grim feeling that tragedy cannot be stopped once the wheels have been set in motion. The mystery unfolds in a tragic, yet satirical line of events, while Eun Kyo Park’s script allows for more than just one interpretation of the mother’s character and actions.
Mostly known among Korean drama fans as the lovely mother figure, Kim Hye Ja mutates into a commanding, highly sensitised source of power. Her world starts and end with her son, and the lines between right and wrong become indistinguishable for the audience, which is tasked with justifying immoral actions. The love for her mentally handicapped son can easily turn catastrophic and all-consuming. Heartthrob Won Bin is also unrecognisable as the goofy, yet prone to violent outbursts son, with his goldfish memories swaying dreamily on-screen. His chameleon transformation from this character to the one he embodied in The Man from Nowhere (2010), shot only a year later, is astounding and certainly worth observing.
Bong Joon Ho’s Mother was inspired by the Korean director’s collaboration with Kim Hye Ja, whom he frequently visited to create a script that suited her skills. Although this film only caught the attention of the western audiences after the success of the filmmaker’s Parasite (2019), its alluring cinematography, tempo and unprediable nature are enough to validate its importance. The backstory is never really defined, the mother remains unnamed to become a generalised figure, and social norms are abandoned in the small rural village. All these elements leave us with questions as to where, how and why these characters are the way they are – leaving us that much more captivated.
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