By Megan Ratner
(Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2009)
From a monster to monstrous love: Bong Joon-ho’s followup to The Host (06) is a disquieting mother-son story starring veteran actress Kim Hye-ja as the film’s shrewd, obsessed—and unnamed—title character: a single parent, small-town apothecary, and black-market acupuncturist. Playing her slow-witted 27-year-old son, Do-joon, Won Bin pads around like an overgrown puppy, completely dependent on his mother. Though Do-joon seems too hapless to be dangerous, the indolent local police pin a teenage schoolgirl’s murder on him. Against huge odds and overcoming every obstacle, not least being her louche lawyer, his mother goes after the real killer. As in The Host and Memories of Murder (03) Bong, this time co-scripting with Park Eun-kyo, leavens the suspense with wry asides. He has something of Yves Klein’s predilection for blue and a welcome fondness for deep-focus shots, yet the film wears its aesthetic sophistication lightly. Among other things, Mother is also a variation on, and a subtle homage to, cinema’s Ur–mother-son duo, Norman and Mrs. Bates.
Bong conceived the film with the 68-year-old Kim in mind, deliberately capitalizing on her decades of work in Korean films and television, in which she nearly always played an idealized mother. The film opens with her alone in a meadow, swaying, then dancing, her peculiarity intensified by an improbable flamenco soundtrack. In a little prelude of what’s to come, her face clouds over, and her hand covers her mouth in a classic gesture of horror and grief, although she remains in motion. Diminutive yet ferocious, Kim embodies Mother as the ultimate survivor. And she’s surviving for two—her relationship to her son is so symbiotic he’s practically an appendage. Frantic and penniless, Mother uses all of her meager advantages: the perceived innocuousness and near-invisibility of an elderly woman.
The delicately handsome Won Bin transforms himself into a credible simpleton just by the way he breathes and by assuming the stunned look of a stoner. Do-joon frustrates everyone, dimly working things out, sometimes years after the fact. Like Mother, he is not quite what he seems. Won barges through the film, conveying the confusion of a stunted child desperate to break free, only not before dinnertime. In several overhead shots, Bong shows the pair in bed together, Do-joon’s hand clamped around his mother’s breast as if he’s a nursing baby, their raft-like mattress a sanctuary. The relationship is so unresolved that it isn’t even incestuous. Rather, it’s a murky fusion of parent and peer reminiscent of Roy and Lilly Dillon in The Grifters.
Bong often interjects long shots of the characters that underline the sense of two puny beings up against the world. In a particularly touching sequence, Mother chases after Do-joon to give him his medicine. As he urinates against a wall near the bus stop, she reaches up to tip the bowl into his mouth, even as he slips away to board the bus. Turning away, she covers the wet pavement with debris. It’s a sad, tender gesture, a mother’s attempt to hide the truth about her son.
The specter of Psycho haunts Bong’s film. Not only because Mother and Do-joon have a similarly undifferentiated relationship (“He was never all Norman, but he was often only mother,” in the words of Norman Bates’s supervising psychiatrist), but because like Psycho, Mother recognizes that our need for order often takes precedence over admitting the truth to ourselves, especially at the movies. Bong takes the idea of the primacy of perception over reality to its ultimate extreme. As British critic Jenny Diski points out, by killing off Janet Leigh long before his movie is done, Hitchcock made us confront “the shocking and trivial end of everything,” though he does nevertheless bring Norman to heel. Bong’s sardonic view of ineffectual authority and the ability of older women to game the system puts a contemporary spin on Hitchcock’s idea. In our world, the monsters still roam free.