The Limits of Family Devotion in Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Mother’

Images: CJ Entertainment

Bong Joon-ho has made history with his latest feature Parasite, which tells the tale of going to extreme lengths for family. But prior to this was his highly praised drama, Mother. There are many things that Mother excels at, but one of the biggest narrative conquests is its portrayal of the true level of devotion that a parent will uphold to protect or save their child, with a mixed tonal complexity. There is already a demonstration of unabashed dedication at play, but – as expected for a film that belongs to such a sophisticated force as South Korean Cinema – it retains a sense of beauty through an overall atmosphere of elegance and grit, combined into one.

This is the story of a widowed mother (Kim Hye-ja) who lives with her son, Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin). They are existing quietly until one day, a girl is brutally murdered, and Yoon Do-joon is charged with the crime. From here is a mother’s mission to prove her son’s innocent while also coming to terms with the reality she now lives in. While being the grieving mother, there is also this emotional vulnerability that is desperate to release. The narrative takes the form of a meticulously crafted murder mystery while also not being the stereotypical revenge plot you may expect. The film focuses on the familiar trope of an innocent man jailed for a crime he did not commit. The police are totally incapable and so it falls to Do-joon’s doting mother to track down the real criminal.

The film begins with Mother’s dance and her stare portraying a myriad of emotions which seem relatively imperceptible and unexplainable. From there it flows like a river – though every single turn it takes and every single stone it scans over might not seem essential, each one leads us to the narrative’s destination. It is a meandering dance whose meaning can only be realised at the end. Joon-ho’s ingenious way of connecting every single thread he sprouts up and the inconspicuous manner in which they are all sewed together can leave one speechless and the heart still. As events unfold there is a feeling of being immersed in the way colour palettes melt into the next, threading a hazy dream through the narrative.

Mother proceeds slowly but always engrossingly as it tip-toes deeper into the riddle, gathering up all the pieces which will be put to later use. Throughout, the atmosphere also has the underlying, unbearable heaviness of an ageing mother who profoundly refuses to believe what the world says about her son. About one hour into the film things start to heat up, and it is some heat that Joon-ho generates within such a short period of time. While this tension has been on the simmer for a long time, the pace with which it proceeds from this point feels like a rocket launch, culminating in revelations which grip the heart tighter than an iron wrench.

Kim Hye-ja gives a stunning performance as the title character; her range is unmatched as it works through the action, comedy and heartbreak. Bong is committed to character-building, and presenting this mature woman on screen feels so uncommon coming from a male director. Won Bin portrays her son, who has learning difficulties, with careful demonstration of how Bong’s style draws out empathy anywhere he possibly can. There’s a certain sensitivity to how Bong Joon-ho creates a film all about the overprotective nature of parenting, but when you’re looking at much of the film from Do-joon’s eyes, you’re seeing something more heartbreaking: a world that continuously pushes him around day by day, because it only sees him for what he’s incapable of.

Bong, along with his co-writer, Park Eun-kyo, crafts a screenplay with silently disturbing moments that somehow seamlessly mix with irreverent humour. Even as the narrative shifts darkly later in the film, with a painful and urgent reveal, it is both a shock and no surprise at all. While also touching on subject matters such as mental illness, justice and crime, this is typically ethical dilemmas as its centre. It is a screenplay which works relentlessly to nurture the characters while also importing his infamous dark humour as seen in both Memories of Murder and Parasite. But instead of replicating the exact theme, he alters the perspective of being that of the mother while exploring how far she will go for her son.

This rollercoaster is maybe a more underrated piece in Bong’s filmography, but will empty your soul the same way as his other features. It is another example of South Korean cinema as its finest and directed by one of their most talented directors.

by Charlotte Juggins

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