Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009)
It’s not uncommon for a parent to see their child through rose-colored glasses, believing that everything they do is good and that it is not possible for them to do bad. Sometimes this is the easiest way to see your child; to do otherwise might bring incredible disappointment, guilt, and shame. You might begin to seriously question your parenting skills. This type of parent will let their child get away with anything. Bong Joon-ho’s Mother takes this type of parent to the extreme, sticking a mother and her, uh, slightly unintelligent son in the middle of a murder investigation. This mother, who is never given any other name, knows that it is impossible that her son could hurt even a water bug, much less murder a girl. She will go to great lengths to be sure that everyone else understands her son as she does.
When the police take her son away for the murder of a local girl, the mother knows that she is the only one who can find him innocent. She has to take the investigation into her own hands and it leads her down unfamiliar and frightening paths. Her detective work throughout the film is a little suspect, but her will carries her through to the truth. Bong feeds us information mainly through her, taking occasional detours. Mother is an inversion of the concerns that permeate Memories of Murder. In that film, Bong’s characters seek the truth (sort of) and are frustrated when they can’t find it; in Mother, the truth has been predetermined by the seeker and her goal is to authenticate what she already knows.
What sets Mother apart from others thrillers is that Bong gives us a film that is a standard procedural and a complex portrait of a mother-son relationship. His movie is shifty in tone. It can be mannered and frantic; funny and transgressive; and it is ultimately moving. He does this largely through the conflicting relationship between the mother’s idea of her son and the realities that she encounters.
Mother’s investigative path leads her through some strange psycho-sexual territory, informed perhaps by the fact that she and her son sleep together. She knows that her son can be manipulated by his friend Jin-te and so she suspects that it is his Jin-te who has committed the murder and silently passed the blame on to her son, who is not intelligent enough to defend his own innocence. She sneaks into Jin-te’s house, finding a golf club stained with something red (it’s not the blood that she thinks it is). When Jin-te comes home with a girl, she hides in the closet and watches them have sex. Soon, though, she learns that she can trust Jin-te. He leads her to concentrate her efforts on finding out more about the victim, who turns out to be a depressing sketch of a character – a schoolgirl hungry enough that she will prostitute herself out to any boy willing to give her a rice ball. Through chain of events, mother gets a hold of the victim’s cell phone. Attempting to find the murderer, she scans through pictures of the many boys who’ve been with this girl. All the while, her son can’t remember any valuable information about the night in question.
These details seem to be confronting Mother, giving her some concept of what her son might be involved in…apart from her. The images that she finds in her search seem to freighten her, but they also compel her to redouble her efforts to find whoever has framed her son, who does eventually does remember some important details about the night of the murder.
To say much more would destroy the experience of seeing Mother unfold in its own diabolical way. Suffice it to say that Mother is a deeply satisfying thriller, the type of thing that doesn’t seem to come along often enough
To conclude this series on Bong Joon-ho, a brief mention should be made of his short film, “Shaking Tokyo”, which is the third (and best) part in the omnibus film Tokyo!
In it, Bong explores a Japanese sociological phenomenon known as “hikikomori”. A hikikomori is someone who isolates him or herself in their own home, never coming out for extended periods of time. In Bong’s “Shaking Tokyo” the protagonist has been living in his small house for ten years, with his lifestyle of reading books and ordering pizza financed by his parents. The segment is a brilliant look at what it means to be alone in a place where millions live.
If you should watch Tokyo!, along with Bong’s segment you’ll find short films by Michel Gondry and Loes Carax. Feel free to skip Carax’s piece.