Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 11, 2010

Mother

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 4:20 pm

This is not quite the typical review since it will divulge the “surprise ending” of the movie under discussion. My goal is less to advise the reader whether to spend $11 or so to see “Mother” since 88% of the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes already give it a favorable rating and presumably carry more weight than my distaff Marxist take. I will join the 12% that are critical but my main interest is in explaining what went wrong in the latest movie from Bong Joon-ho, one of Korea’s most acclaimed directors. (His last movie The Host was a brilliant updating of the Godzilla genre.) In order to do that, I will have to reveal the ending which, like much of the rest of the movie, has a deeply alienating effect on at least this viewer and that is probably all that matters in the long run.

The mother referred to in the title is an old woman who runs a medicinal herb shop and does unlicensed acupuncture on the side. Played by Hye-ja Kim, she lives with her 27 year old retarded son Do-joon (Won Bin) and shares a bed with him even though there are no indications that theirs is an incestuous relationship. But there are signs that their relationship is not normal. She makes a point of telling him over a meal that one ingredient is good for his virility. In another scene he is shown urinating against a wall while his mother stares intently down at his penis.

But mostly their relationship is about her doting on him despite the difficulties she meets on a daily basis. As opposed to more severely retarded people, Do-joon is an independent spirit—perhaps too independent—who likes to go out drinking late at night and chase after women even if they reject his clumsy advances out of hand. Late one night in a drunken stupor he follows home a high school girl. After she ducks into an abandoned shack to avoid him, he propositions her from outside. Her response is to throw a heavy rock from inside that lands at his feet. The next morning she is found dead not far away. Shortly afterwards Do-joon is arrested for murder and his mother goes on a crusade to clear his name since he is not capable of hurting a waterbug, as she puts it.

Despite the fact that Do-joon is obviously retarded and even flies into a rage when people call him a “retard” in the spirit of the Rahm Emanuel epithet of recent notoriety, reviewers more or less avoid confronting this issue. The New Yorker Magazine’s Anthony Lane puts it this way: “The chief suspect is a local boy, Do-joon (Won Bin): twenty-seven years old, but a boy nonetheless.” Variety’s Derek Elley sidesteps the issue as well: “But Bong Joon-ho’s Mother is a mutha of a different kind — an engrossing portrait of a feisty Korean widow determined to prove her emotionally fragile son innocent of murder.” Well, there is nothing “emotionally challenged” about him. He is intellectually challenged and cannot be relied on to provide information that would help him avoid conviction, either through an inability to remember the details of the evening or to communicate them effectively to a jury.

The middle of the movie is a kind of whodunit as the mother tries to track down who the real culprit might be. It turns out that the murdered girl, who was desperately poor, turned tricks on the side to help her get by even accepting rice cakes instead of money on occasion. She also was in the habit of photographing her “johns” on her cell phone for posterity. When the phone turns up missing, Do-joon’s mother becomes an amateur detective to track it down.

Despite the fact that the two main characters come from Korea’s lower depths and have all sorts of repellent features, you inevitably hope that the mother will triumph in the end. But director Bong Joon-ho is so much into “subverting” audience expectations that you are robbed of such a possibility. It turns out that Do-joon is the killer after all. He did not actually intend to kill the girl but accidentally hit her on the head when he threw the stone back at her. The mother learns this from a junk dealer who happened upon the incident and was the sole eyewitness. When he tells her that he is about to go to the cops and give them his story, she bashes his skull in with a pipe-wrench and burns down his shack. So we end up with a truly pathological figure who does not prompt hate as much as disaffection. The audience has to be carefully taught that we are no longer living in the age of heroes and heroines.

While there is much to admire in Mother, especially the warped humor that so many Korean movies display, the story simply lacks the catharsis that you almost instinctively seek in any drama. There is a strong sense of nihilism that the movie conveys that I attribute less to any deep philosophical convictions of the director and the screenplay writers than I do to the perennial need to be “transgressive”, a sine qua non for film-makers looking for acclaim at movie festivals. Indeed, Mother was a big hit at the 2009 NY Film Festival.

My biggest problem, however, was with the absolutely repellent characterization of Do-joon who we are led to believe might be typical of retarded people convicted of capital crimes. I don’t know what the situation is in Korea, but in Texas mentally retarded people are routinely sent to the gas chamber. By choosing to make a main character capable of such an awful crime even if on an unpremeditated basis, Bong Joon-ho disappoints me even as he continues to show that his cinematic chops are awesome. This is enough to get rave reviews from most critics, but not from an old-fashioned, “politically correct” unrepentant Marxist.

5 Comments »

  1. “It turns out that Do-joon is the killer after all. He did not actually intend to kill the girl but accidentally hit her on the head when he threw the stone back at her.”

    “By choosing to make a main character capable of such a heinous crime…”

    Thanks for the review but if your 2nd statement is referring to the Do-joon character as it appears from the context then I can’t reconcile the description “heinous crime” with the 1st statement “accidently hit her”. The mother certainly committed a heinous crime but not the son as far as I can make out.

    Comment by meltrc — March 11, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

  2. Isn’t the director referencing the ‘traditional’ committment of Korean mothers to their sons, and satirizing it by giving a Freudian reading to a Confucian ideal. The guilt, then, is not of this generation, but of the previous generation, who still kill to hide the truth about themselves.

    Isn’t it about an incapable present generation overshadowed by a lying past; a Korean trope at this point?

    I haven’t seen the film (yet), just thinking out loud.

    Comment by Castellio — March 16, 2010 @ 5:34 am

  3. Does’t Texas get any love in your world?

    Comment by Erik — March 17, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

  4. […] my disappointment in Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s latest movie Mother, I was so impressed with The Host, the one that preceded it, that I was determined to look further […]

    Pingback by Memories of Murder « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 26, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

  5. “My biggest problem, however, was with the absolutely repellent characterization of Do-joon who we are led to believe might be typical of retarded people convicted of capital crimes. I don’t know what the situation is in Korea, but in Texas mentally retarded people are routinely sent to the gas chamber.”

    I’d understand your viewpoint if it were an American film, but since it’s a Korean flick I don’t think your argument is very strong.

    Comment by Dave Park — January 14, 2011 @ 7:06 am


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