Ah coincidence! Just last week I was engaged upon an interesting discussion, on my other blog, about whether it is possible to write proper criticism when one has to avoid giving the plot away, and what should happen? I come upon a film for which this holds true more than any mystery I have read in recent times. So if you have not seen this film but plan on doing so (which I would urge everyone to do) do NOT read any further.Mother (2009) is a Korean film directed by Joon-ho Bong. The basic plot surrounds a woman, played by Hye-ja Kim in a quite extraordinary performance, who lives with and for her son Yoon Do-Joon. Yoon is, to be polite, a dim and inept young man who has memory problems. The film opens on a gorgeous shot of The Mother (I don’t think she is ever named, which is obviously a deliberate policy) standing in the midst of a vast cornfield performing a strange kind of dance whose meaning it is impossible to interpret. We then switch to her chopping some herbs while her son goofs around (I think this term will do better than any other) in the street. Indeed the whole of the film’s opening is mainly in a comic register as we follow Do-Joon’s absurd exploits. Then one night he gets drunk at a bar and on his way home spots a girl whom he tries to chat up. She dodges into a shack and throws a rock at him and he goes back to his mother. In the morning she is found dead draped on the roof of the shack . A couple of golf balls, which Do-Joon is known to have possessed, are found by the body and he is arrested for the murder. His mother then embarks on a solitary and increasingly desperate quest to clear his name. It becomes clear to her that the only way she will do this is to find the real killer. Some points need to be made about this quest and the circumstances of the murder. In the first place, the policemen involved are mostly honest, decent people (there is one exception but even his bullying is mild by Western standards). And murder is very rare in this particular Korean town (whether this reflects social reality I have no idea) so it causes a considerable stir. Secondly the trope which the film follows seems a reasonably familiar one – a woman’s individual struggle for justice in the face of massive odds, in particular those of gender and class. In fact this quest on several occasions shows the woman in, at best, an insensitive light, as when she turns up at the murdered girl’s funeral protesting her son’s innocence. The film becomes darker and darker as it progresses, and we are shown that the murdered girl was a tragic victim abused by many older men. Now I would guess that this action occupies over 100 minutes, probably well-over, of the film’s 128 minute total. And my position at this time was that I was becoming a little weary. This despite the fact that it is beautifully crafted by a director who has great cinematic gifts, not only in terms of pictorial composition but in the use of sound, in sudden explosions into action. Then came the twist.
The mother tracks down the man she believes to be the killer who is a scrap dealer living in a ramshackle house in the country. She pretends to be a health visitor. He tells his story. He was in the shack on the night of the murder and saw what happened. The girl did come in and did throw the rock at Yoon; but she then shouted ‘Retard’ at him; he picked up the rock and threw it at her, killing her. It should be explained here that we have seen repeated references to how Yoon does react violently if he is called a retard, and we have seen a scene in which he explains to his mother that he is doing as she taught him and standing up for himself when he does so. The mother tells the scrap dealer that he must be wrong, that the police are preparing to release Yoon. He maintains his story and goes to phone the police. She picks up a wrench and batters him to death, then sets fire to the house and staggers away, ending up eventually in the corn-field – the opening shot is repeated (and explained). This would have been an ending in itself, but the film now continues in a harrowing and bitter register. The police arrest someone else for the murder – a young man with severe learning difficulties who has been found with the girl’s blood on his shirt. We know that he is entirely innocent. The Mother goes to see him and once she has satisfied himself that he has no living parents goes away saying nothing. Yoon is released from prison. There is a shot of him and his mother eating a meal together, which refers back to an earlier one in the film, and he says that he thinks the girl was displayed on the roof because the killer wanted to attract help for her. He sends her on a coach holiday for honoured parents (or some such title) and just before he goes he hands over her acupuncture kit which he found in the scrap dealer’s burnt-out house. We see the mother on the coach sitting alone while the other mothers dance in the aisle. She takes a needle and inserts it in her thigh – previously reference had been made to an acupuncture point which erases unhappy memories. She joins in the dance.
Now I must emphasise that at no point did I have the least suspicion of the real solution to the murder. The revelation, when it came, was as shocking to me as it was to The Mother. And it caused me to look back at the narrative in an entirely new light. This is exactly how a carefully contrived astonishing solution should function in a mystery novel, and those of the latter which truly achieve it take a large step towards greatness in the genre. There is one other test. Does the solution make sense in terms of what has gone before? Were there clues which were consistent with the solution, and which when we look back we realise that we were foolish to have overlooked? The answer in Mother, to both questions, is undoubtedly yes. We were, for instance, twice shown Yoon’s reaction to being called a retard. What then becomes interesting is how the trick has been pulled off. How has the writer, or in this case film-maker, so misled us? In Mother the answer is fairly readily apparent. The viewer becomes locked in to the ‘woman fighting for justice’ trope. As such we are fairly sure that the movie will have one of two possible endings: triumphantly, with the true killer being revealed and Yoon released, or tragically, with the Mother failing in her struggle and injustice prevailing (and the real killer still at large). In fact we were very much led to the former option by the opening shot. Once one buys into this then one’s identification with The Mother and her quest becomes total and never for a minute do we question Yoon’s innocence because she does not. That is how the film manages to succeed with its magnificent twist.
But this is far from being just a highly successful narrative trick (although that in itself would be a cause for great commendation, because contrary to literary elitism such tricks are very hard to pull off) . It is where the film goes after this that so appalls. The Mother becomes a vicious killer who is willing to see a wholly innocent young man with learning difficulties framed for a crime he did not commit. The ending is as immoral as one can imagine, as it suggests that ultimately she sees herself as justified and is willing to just blot out her memories. And this is a woman for whom our heart’s bled as she trudged across vast landscapes, or persisted in the face of indifference or mockery, or walked through the pouring rain in her quest on behalf of a young man we believed to be a rather charming, if annoying, idiot. The question that arises from all this is whether the film is misogynist? Because it is most certainly a complex and weighty attack on mother love. When we review the film in the light of the solution there is something of the Greek tragedy about it; something primeval. But in a way this is misleading because I think to make this analysis one would need to know, which I certainly do not, the amount of importance placed on motherhood in Korean culture. From Western eyes my answer is that the film is definitely not misogynist. It shows very clearly how the victim has been exploited by men, and it shows and punishes male violence to women. But it is utterly unsparing in its portrait of how uncritical mother love distorts moral values, personality, society. Is it sexist that this is mother-love rather than parental love? Possibly but what we have to accept, certainly from a Western perspective, is that mother-love is seen as stronger than father-love. It is precisely for this reason that the film’s trick works so stunningly well. If it had been a father’s quest I do not think we would have bought into the narrative nearly so uncritically. Look at the still I have provided. Is this not someone whom one would identify with, trust? (and I reiterate again that Hye-ja Kim’s performance is simply astonishing). When one challenges a deeply held belief, such as the sanctity of the mother-child relationship (and it is still deeply held), it is inevitable that you are going to break a few eggs in making the omelette. Mother is a film which succeeds magnificently in making this challenge and hence shocking the viewer.
Having seen the film once I now want to watch it again in full knowledge of the whole story. This would be a quite different experience and one would watch the film in an entirely different way. It would of course be a much, much darker film. Mother is a film which on first viewing starts as near comedy and if it becomes darker, one is always buoyed by the belief that there will be some sort of happy ending; in fact it lurches into a terrifying darkness which is appallingly emphasised by the fact that it does in fact have that ostensibly happy ending. This is a brilliant movie. Finally I want to link to the conversation I was having on my mystery blog about the possibility of making a proper critical assessment of a mystery book when one cannot reveal the plot. The discussion is in the comments on http://mysterymile.wordpress.com/2010/09/02/writers-and-critics/ and was initiated by rte editor Yvonne. If you read the discussion you will see I argue against her contention that it is impossible to do so: in the case of Mother however I would have to say that she is completely right. I see no way to start talking about the film without mentioning that there is an enormous twist, and even to do this might well damage someone’s viewing. As for serious critical comment it is absolutely vital to reveal the ending. Whether Mother is the exception that proves the rule or it shows that I am wrong and Yvonne right I do not know. I will have to look out for further examples!