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[HanCinema's Hall of Fame] Bong Joon-ho's "Mother - 2009"

2013/10/26

In the Spotlight this Week: "Mother - 2009" by Bong Joon-ho

The mother-image invokes particularly powerful emotions within us all; they are the protecting and nurturing figures that we imagine to be compassionately eternal and lovingly steadfast. In "Mother - 2009" that ideal is given a cruel existence, a scratched filmind born from the collision of untouchable family values and modern Korea's fumbling with justice and reliability. How would a widowed mother react if her only son (of 28 years) were accused of cold-blooded murder? An interesting enough thought experiment, but all-star director Bong Joon-ho challenges us further by thinking the son as mentally handicapped, another cruel test of faith for his mother-image. 'Unconditional love' seems an appropriate tool from which to start from here, it's the romantic weapon that tells us all that a mother's love is always forthcoming - like the rise and fall of the sun. "Mother - 2009" is the tragic story of that unconditional love gone awry, lost somewhere in the vast and unforgiving social space that Bong places between mother and son, between their love and shared madness.

Earlier this year Lee Hwan-gyeong's "Miracle in Cell No.7" climbed to 12.8 million admissions, an phenomenal achievement driven by some of the same narrative essences we find in "Mother - 2009". Lee's comedy drama was a heartfelt affair, but was relatively happy with itself throughout. Magic and hope were always giddily splashed all around the frame as we held our breath (rather knowingly) for young Ye-seung and her mentally handicapped father Yong-goo. In "Mother - 2009" similar family/social relationships occur. In both films the legal system's need to hold loved ones apart is clear, but it is the family relationships that appear to have been turned inside out and upside down (with Bong flirting with matriarchy within an obviously less-'magical' family portrait). The sweet and innocent Ye-seung has suddenly morphed into a fussing elderly Korean woman (Do-joon's mother played by Kim Hye-ja), while Yong-goo has had his looks rejuvenated by turning back the clock a few years – now a heartthrob with a troubled mind (Won Bin as Do-joon). Whether it's a father-daughter or mother-son relationship, both films find a way to also think about our social attitude towards the mentally challenged/handicapped. For both, the central 'injustices' revolve around these desperate family pairs and their mixing within society-tragically thrown into the world together, not knowing that terms and conditions always apply.

Bong's "Mother - 2009" contains a lot of the same thought patterns the country's thrillers and psychological dramas display, and those familiar with Korean cinema's shadowy affairs will be ushered through. The film has a fleeting grip on morality and corrosive view on the overlap between family values and society norms. There is no 'magic-realism' to be found here (no "Miracle"), just the wondering eye of mother going mad in a world she can't control or knows how to protect. Steering the filmind's eye is the familiar visions of cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, the digital alchemist responsible for shaping such dreams as "Save the Green Planet" (2003), "Taegukgi" (2004), "The Good, the Bad, the Weird" (2008), and this year's runaway success "Snowpiercer". Central to the film's narrative are the constant questions of just whether Do-joon did or didn't kill that young girl? And, more immediately, how mad is this making mother? In service to these highly-strung tensions Hong renders the film's thinkings in alluring ambiguities and probing compositions, constantly asking questions of both Do-Joon's ultimate fate at the hands of the system, and that of his mother against her own image.

"Mother - 2009" was the seventh highest grossing Korean film in 2009, bringing in a little over 3 million admissions during its run earlier in the year. Success at the box office is something Bong has been forced to become familiar with, and this, his sixth feature, was no exception. Assisting this prolific talent in bringing his rabid characters to life were the compatibly combustible duo of Kim Hye-ja and Won Bin, both of whom performed brilliantly before Hong's keen and unforgiving eye. With a filmography as relatively short as Bongs you might imagine it relatively easy to name favourites, but this filmic genius keeps churning out one masterpiece after the next, making such pressure questions tough and unpleasant. But if we were to venture around a future gallery of Bong's worthwhile cinematics, one would surely linger in front of the award-winning "Mother - 2009", gaze into her troubled eyes, and watch her dance her fears away like no one was watching.

- C.J. Wheeler (chriscjw@gmail.com; @KoreaOnTheCouch)

 

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