Talking Movies: O Mother, Where Art Thou?

Talking Movies: May 2010 – It’s always risky making generalizations involving gender. But what’s life without a little risk? Motherhood is the social role most likely to devour a person’s identity. It seems much easier for a father to take off the father hat. When a mother wakes up in the middle of the night, her first thought is usually, “Are the children safe?” In Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s new movie Mother, playing at the Bijou May 7-13, the main character is rarely named. She is all mother.

Bong Joon-ho came to the world’s attention a few years ago with The Host, a one-of-a-kind horror movie about a flesh-eating monster that mysteriously kidnaps a girl. But viewers like me fell in love with it because of its uncanny sense of the mysteries of family life, its human warmth, and its quirky nobility. There are numerous scenes in The Host that make you giggle at, empathize with, and feel horror for the main characters–all at the same time. In fact, the emotions get so intermingled, you often don’t know what you’re feeling. We have the word “bittersweet,” but English would need a considerably more monstrous compound to describe how a Bong Joon-ho movie makes you feel. If anything, the emotions in Mother are even more mixed, though in darker hues than the movie about a flesh-eating monster.

Mother is about a twenty-something by the name of Do-Joon who suffers from an unnamed mental malady. (Is Korea the last place on earth where deviations from mental normalcy aren’t immediately shot, tagged, and drugged?) Sometimes people call him a retard, and then he attempts to karate kick them. Do-Joon lives with and–in creepy-tender-telling moments–sleeps curled up next to his mother. Though she does her best to keep watch over her doe-eyed boy, Do-Joon falls under the sway of a local hood and sometimes gets into trouble with the cops. After a strange coincidence, he’s accused of a murder. Lacking the mental wherewithal, he allows the eager-to-convict interrogators to coerce a confession from him. His mother then takes it upon herself to find the real killer and free her son.

Critics have called Mother Hitchcockian, but that’s not quite right (unless they’re thinking of the weirdness of Norman Bates’s maternal bond). There are indeed squirm-inducing moments of suspense, but that’s not Bong Joon-ho’s game. He uses the murder mystery genre much like he used the horror film genre–to plunge into the complexity of family ties. Though the movie strings us along as a whodunnit, the floor of the plot keeps falling out from under us, and each time it does we fall deeper into the beautiful-smothering-protecting-horrible love this mother feels for her child.

One of the many things I love about Mother–and The Host, too–is its unerring feel for the place of food and drink in human life. In both movies, there are a number of scenes of people just eating, alone or together, but we feel in those simple moments what their stories are all about. In Mother, there’s also a lot of drinking. The social classes are kept afloat–just barely–on a river of booze. One of the most striking scenes visually and symbolically is of Do-Joon peeing against an alley wall. His mother has been calling after him to take his medicine. She catches up to him and pours it into his mouth as his piss streams down the alley.

Kim Hya-Ja is brilliant as the mother. We feel her maternal attention almost as powerfully as we felt our own mother’s watchful eye when we were three. But what makes her performance truly first-rate is that she gives little peeps here and there of the woman lurking deep inside her consuming motherhood. For instance, at one point during her investigation, she has to hide herself away behind a closet’s curtain, as a suspect and his girlfriend come into the room and begin making love. What she then does with a few movements of her eyes is worthy of the Korean equivalent of an Oscar.

The first scene of the movie is weird: a woman in her late fifties dancing like a teenager in a field of wheat. What is she doing? The last scene is also of this old woman dancing like a teen. The puzzle now has been solved. She’s untied the deeply tangled knots of motherhood from her heart.