Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Ties That Bind: Bong Joon-Ho's Mother

Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother is devastatingly good. It begins as a story about a middle-aged single mother in a small South Korean town with a mentally-challenged son who gets incarcerated for the murder of a young woman. But it ultimately goes far beyond the basic mechanics of melodrama. For Bong, the director of Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2007), genre is merely the starting point for a more searing examination of the family ties that bind.

The umbilical chord that holds a mother to her son is also the link between a country divided and a society not far removed from the rituals of authoritarianism. Like Germany in the post-war and Berlin Wall years, Korea is also a severed nation. But unlike the post-war German directors, like Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who used genre pictures as a means to express their guilt and hopelessness, Bong Joon-Ho uses conventional narrative to uncork the violence and pain of being estranged. Given that authoritarianism imposes ritual, Bong is naturally drawn to genres that have rules – but rules he feels compelled to break. The Host, for example, begins as a humorous, wily tribute to '50s monster movies like Creature of the Black Lagoon and Godzilla, but it quickly becomes a surprisingly stirring drama about family honor and loyalties. When a slimy reptilian monster (a product of chemical pollution) kidnaps the daughter of a rather dim-witted father, he goes on a torturous mission to get her back. The Host evolved into that rare horror film, one that became inconsolably poignant. Mother shares many of The Host’s virtues, as well as some aspects from his first film, Memories of Murder, a procedural about a Korean serial-killer.

After being widowed for many years, Hye-ja (Kim Hye-ja) lives alone with her only son, Do-joon (Won Bin). Although he is 28 years old, he has the impish and impulsive nature of an adolescent eager to please. Do-joon is also deeply impressionable. (His best friend – and only friend - Jin-tae is a born trouble maker who uses Do-joon both as his scapegoat and tool.) When a young woman’s murdered body is found, Do-joon becomes the likely suspect for authorities because he was assumed to be the last person to see her alive. But Bong also makes it clear that Do-joon’s arrest and imprisonment is merely an easy convenience for bureaucratic authorities who are eager to put the case to bed. Without any substantive evidence, the police seize on Do-joon because he’s a simpleton they can compel to confess. Hye-ja though is not content to see her son rot in prison. She quickly – and shrewdly - begins her own investigation to uncover the facts and free her son. But as Hye-ja comes closer to the truth, she also unveils both disturbing memories buried in the family and shocking impulses borne out of maternal desperation.

While Mother is a superbly crafted piece of work, Kim Hye-ja gives the picture depth. Her performance is simply a powerhouse. She is heartbreaking and unnerving, never once giving in to predictable behaviour. Unlike most melodramas about familial strife, Hye-ja doesn’t actively seek out the audience’s sympathies. In fact, her actions sometimes induce embarrassment and horror. Hye-ja looks through the jail cell bars at her callow son and sees a part of herself she’s tried to forget while her son struggles to recover painful memories he’s been forced to bury. It’s a classic twist on motherly love. Won Bin’s performance is also a sly piece of work (not unlike Song Kang-ho’s father in The Host) where the character’s initial goofiness disguises a deeper longing with lasting regrets. The symbiotic nature of the relationship between the mother and son here becomes a two-way mirror that both sustains and perpetrates a dark drama. When they sleep together it doesn’t so much suggest incest as it does the coiling of an anxious desire to remain connected.

Mother gives you the shivers even as it enraptures you.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer\broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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