Mother (Korea, 2009, Joon-ho Bong)
The film has just finished, the credits have only started to appear, and Monica says: "What a performance! She should win an Academy Award. And they give the thing to Sandra Bullock..."
Whereupon Monica went online to read that The New York Times also gave the actress A+ while slapping the director on the wrist a little bit for a touch of sketchiness in the narrative. Considering I recently took Animal Kingdom to task for what I regarded as a greater degree than just a touch of this, let me say that I could not disagree more with the Times' take on Mother. Monica consulted Roger Ebert as well who holds the shifts in the story to be a virtue and not a vice. He says that Mother is the sort of film that American audiences should see all the time and never do. Not only do I agree completely with Ebert on this but I will elaborate the point further.
The lack of lock-step linearity in the plot, atmosphere and tone is aesthetically challenging in its own right, but this challenge carries over into the deeper conceptual terrain of the film's moral and even metaphysical concerns. The organizing principle of Mother is mystery. This is pursued on a number of levels, some of which unfold and resolve in straight-forward ways and some of which twist and turn and never do settle down, touching on mysticism. The latter is usually applied pejoratively by me but not this time.
Before I make much of the mystery in Mother, however, let me guard against what might be my own stupidity in this case. I recently celebrated an aspect of Lust, Caution as "far Eastern exotic" while stressing that I meant no racist "Orientalist" meaning. The same adheres now to my appreciation of the mysterious in Mother. I do not mean to imply any notion of "Asian inscrutability." This is to acknowledge that my interpretation of Mother may be confused by my Western ignorance of Korean culture.
With respect to this, Monica's research also brought forth that the actress in the film is famous in that country for an ongoing television role. She portrays what is apparently typical in Korea these days; an overbearing, overprotective, over-over-over mother who has everything invested in her only child. The obvious comedy with which the film starts gives way to serious suspense and eventually ethical discomfiture in my eyes. Yet it may very well be from a contemporary Korean perspective that Mother is consistently satirical; lampooning a popular melodrama and even going so far as to be postmodern about it insofar as the spoof of the soap opera employs the star of the soap opera. The culturally specific irony compounds further in a pun. In the written language of Korean, the script for "mother" and the script for "murder" are differentiated by only a single brushstroke.
Even though I cannot fathom this consistent satire, I too find the film to be consistent. The shifts in the story are not like Bollywood potpourri. They are facets of an integrated whole. And be the satire as it may for Koreans, I am prepared to speculate that for them also, Mother delves beyond the superficial level of a murder mystery to the mystery of the origin of the son's mental incapacities. The mystery of how the mother could even contemplate - never mind attempt - the murder of her son and herself. The mystery of her power to erase painful memory in him and herself.
The questions asked about these things are answered by the film but only partially. Rational explanations are given but these explanations only go so far. They do not make complete psychological sense. The cognitive disability and emotional repression remain; not in the same place, they are relocated from one person to the next, yet they have not gone away. Nor do the explanations prove adequate empirically. Events happen and are perceptually reconstructed along lines that are physically and socially realistic. Yet, there is more going on with respect to the acupuncture science worked by the mother, and the alienation in the community takes on an almost supernatural presence.
I won't go so far as to argue the thesis that the town is cursed and the mother's original sin is the source of evil. Nevertheless, it strikes me as reasonable to view her as a kind of witch, albeit one who is her own worst victim. What is it if not magic, the insertion of a needle into the flesh to erase any recollection of wrong-doing done in the past? Ostensibly a benevolent therapy, this is the annihilation of conscience itself by a black art. In my review of Heneke's The White Ribbon, I categorize the sinister society depicted in terms of a strictly secular "poison-in-the-well." In Mother, there is also a sort of poison in the well, but it is not so strictly secular Far from it.
But even without this metaphysical reading, the moral universe of Mother is disturbing in the extreme. How can such true love turn in on itself to become so perverted? A mother's love, no less. And how refreshing that the good ol' Oedipus Complex is not the pat answer to this question. The cause of the perversion is highly problematic and this is really what makes the film challenging, not the superficial issue of moving from being a light comedy to a serious drama by way of a crime story. Near the beginning of the film, a golf club is wielded as a weapon and we are certain that no injury will result. Near the end of the film, a pipe wrench is used as a lethal weapon and the killing is no joke. But the big change signaled by this has to do with us coming to realize that there is something profoundly no-good within the mother and son relationship, after it initially warmed our hearts as wholesome and humorous.
The difficult truth of the matter is that the son did, in fact, kill the girl, however much by accident, and the mother most definitely does murder the junk man, however much in the panic of the moment. In short, our protagonists are guilty, so deeply deeply guilty. And this is very tough for us because we sympathize with them so strongly. We have been sucker-punched. They were so benign and funny at the outset and they become so dangerous and tragic in the end. They are a couple of killers, inseparably together in their twisted devotion and criminality. Meanwhile, a real retard - not a person who has had his intelligence truncated by trauma and a lobotomy conducted through the upper thigh - a God-given dim-wit who is innocent of any sordid conduct, he takes the rap. But of course, he doesn't have a mother.
I can't believe that this isn't the experience for a Korean audience too. You don't have to be Greek to get the Greek coming off of all this, eh? If I am to allow that Mother is a satire, it must be allowed in turn that there is more to this satire than meets the eye. And speaking of what meets the eye, what a good-looking movie! There were a number of beautiful interiors, but some of the exteriors struck me even more, especially those that drew on the suburban or rural landscape. From the water traps of the golf course shimmering back the moonlight to her among the dancing of the tall yellow grass, or let me just sum it up with the following high praise; the burning house in this film reminded me of the burning house in Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice.
The New York Times would have me be bothered by the character of the son's friend. How can he extort money from the mother yet help her with her detective investigation at the same time? It would be nice to disregard the issue by simply deciding that this shows the complexity of the character. But he is actually not that complex; his speech to the mother not to trust anyone in town, including him, notwithstanding. He is essentially a plot instrument. At the same time, though, without being complex, his commitment to the son is genuine enough and overall I see him signifying the same thing as the rest of the townsfolk; i.e., the terribly tenuous bonds barely holding the community together.
I suppose that The Times even more would have me object to the plot function of the junk man. Upon leaving the prison, the son observes the burnt wreckage and the friend comments something to the effect of, "oh right, you didn't get the memo." In other words, everyone in town knows the junk man. Everyone, that is, except the mother, who has only a vague recollection of his identity after buying an umbrella from him in passing. Mind you, she knows full well where he lives... hummnn. And he, for his part, cannot recognize her when she comes to call on him at his place. Mind you, he does scratch his head that she looks familiar at first and... hummnn; we're back to the terribly tenuous bonds barely holding the community together. More than that. We are looking directly at the curse upon the town and the mother's recapitulation of her original sin that is the cause of it. Hummnn... turns out I will go so far as to argue that thesis.
Very good, very cool piece of cinema. And Monica is so right. The woman should get the Oscar.