Mother opens with a gloriously melancholy shot of a woman walking aimlessly through a field of wheat. She stops, the camera moves in a bit closer, and then she begins to dance like a much younger woman as a drumbeat comes to life on the soundtrack. This seems at first to be some kind of introduction, and it is, but it’s also a mystery. The juxtaposition of shots to follow, which dive in to plot, give little indication and the scene is quickly forgotten as we are drawn in to the greater mystery: a murder has been committed and her son is the accused.
The son, Yoon Do-joon, is twenty-something, mentally incompetent (though the precise disorder goes unnamed) and completely dependent on his mother. He takes great offense to being called “retard” which he responds to with foot or fist. He occasionally runs afoul the law due to the machinations of his only friend Jin-tae, a local hood of some sort. By apparent happenstance, he becomes the prime suspect of the murder of a teenage girl. Lacking the competence to defend himself and with complete innocence he allows the police, whose only evidence is a golf ball bearing his name found near the scene, to extract a confession. The mother then takes responsibility for conducting an investigation to uncover the real murderer and vindicating her son.
With skillful pictorial economy, we immediately learn a great deal about the relationship between mother and son. Hye-ja is introduced (after the dance sequence) slicing some kind of herb with a blade while, at the same time, watching Do-joon through her store window. Motherhood means work; it means sacrifice, but she has always one protective eye cast upon her son. This is also premonition, for just as she watches a car speeds past knocking Do-joon down to the sidewalk. She responds immediately, cutting her finger with the blade in the process, darting out the door to her son, who is apparently unharmed, on the opposite side of the street. She has such a strong connection with her child it verges on the mystical. It’s the kind of thing that is difficult to capture with prose and Bong Joon-ho makes efficient use of the techniques of cinema to express it visually.
This scene is repeated, with a variation, a short time later. Dividing her attention between a customer and her son through the glass, she darts outside once again as Do-joon is hustled in to a police car (picked up for the murder). In the first scene it is she who is injured because of her son (slashing her finger during the hit-and-run), but in this scene it is Do-joon who is injured because of her. The driver is distracted by her giving chase on foot and never sees the van crashing in to them, sending the car reeling with Do-joon cuffed in the backseat. So their relationship is reciprocal; one bound inexorably to the other.
Bong Joon-ho goes to great lengths, including the aforementioned scenes, to express the intimacy, the oneness, of mother and son. The profundity of which may be fathomed in the fact of sleeping together; it is even, and most strongly, to be found emanating from her face. Kim Hye-ja dominates this character, and by extension the entire film, with her face—and especially her eyes—more than anything else. She has a striking beauty for a woman in her fifties and despite the well-worn features that come with motherhood. There’s also a hilarious scene of her chasing after Do-joon to give him his medicine. He’s pissing against a wall while waiting for a bus so she takes the opportunity to pour the liquid down his throat as urine issues down the alley.
It’s hard to imagine a more striking, and honest, portrayal. A brief perusal of the actresses credits yields a short list—one interestingly filled with mother roles (her characters’ names often just ‘mother’ or some variation)–so it may be that she has relatively little training and perhaps this accounts for the seemingly effortless and realistic performance she gives. Whatever the case, Bong extracts a powerful performance from this actress, the kind that could easily mean an Academy Award for someone like, say, Meryl Streep.
This can’t be understated. In the Hollywood system, at least since the mid-40s, women have overwhelmingly been accessory, exploited sexually or in other ways; or if they are treated with a measure of respect it’s often simply because they are cast in a typically masculine (read: heroic) role (think Thelma and Louise). While Bong uses this character metonymically, as a representation of mother’s everywhere, he never exploits. He treats this character with tenderness, taking great care to encircle her, capturing her emotionally, intellectually and psychologically from every angle. This is an exciting and refreshing development for Western eyes—even for those of the East, for while Korea is not precisely invested of this legacy, it is no less true for Asian cinema than American.
While this story begins and ends with one woman, in-between Bong certainly strays (to its benefit) from the heart of the film, at times playing with memory and perception, exploring teenage sexuality and youth politics, Korean class hierarchy, and police abuse/ineptitude once again as he did with Memories of Murder. And all of this is captured in striking and idiosyncratic ways. The kind of frame compositions less interested in symbolism than evocation.
This director is truly charting his own path through cinematic art. He has so far consistently produced not only great films, but genre-blending, humorous, endearing and beautiful works of art; exploiting genre and character types as needed and employing convention only when inevitable—when it’s more useful or convenient perhaps than his own conception. At the risk of seeming trite, I name Mr. Bong Joon-ho among the most brilliant of new talent, and at the very least the most important director working in Korea. With the aplomb of a master he reinvented the murder-mystery with Memories of Murder, also reinvented the monster-thriller (crafting an amusing and affecting family portrait) with The Host and with Mother he’s reinvigorated the mother/son relationship on film, simultaneously giving us one of the most moving and provocative portraits of a woman and a mother yet recorded.
For his coda the director returns to where we began. Hye-ja is on a bus at sunset and, with the same score from film’s opening, she follows the lead of the other women dancing up and down the aisle. This is a beautifully, and boldly, shot sequence; one apparently using a telephoto lens at great distance, following the moving vehicle. It is jittery, in-and-out of focus, but spellbinding as if the camera too is enraptured, taken in by the rhythm as the characters are. The opening sequence now seems to say: “this is a story of a woman,” while her body condenses and explicates her story through dramatic dance. It also seems to signify a measure of liberation for a woman who has just, at great cost, spared her son an unenviable fate.