Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

28 April, 2010

Madeo (Mother)

The only true moments of serenity in Joon-ho Bong's Mother bookend the film although it's unclear whether the calm is the result of inner peace or insanity because the rest of the film resembles the oedipal nightmare of a song by The Police with the same name that goes "Oh mother dear please listen - And don't devour me".

The titular character remains nameless throughout the film. She is, in this sense, a generic maternal figure. Here, Mother runs a herbalist shop and performs illegal acupuncture on the side. She is in her shop cutting plants with one eye and using the other to monitor her son, Do-joon, who is out on the street horsing around. Do-joon is not all there. While we are led to think that he suffers a mild form of mental retardation, we don't really know what causes his memory problems or why he's a bit slower than everyone else. In a tense scene which presages the Hitchcockian suspense of the latter half of the film, Mother's fingers draw ever closer to the blade as she becomes ever more vigilant of her son across the street. The shop is dark while the street outside framed by the front doorway is brightly lit. She is watching him like a hawk. A car hits Do-joon and, although he is pretty much unhurt, he and his friend Jin-tae chase the car to a country club and assault a gaggle of golfers. When the dust settles and justice meted out, Mother learns that Jin-tae is not trustworthy as he pawned the blame for a broken car mirror on the hapless Do-joon.

Soon after this, a girl is found murdered. Do-joon was known to have been in the area where the body was found around the time of her death and he once again has the blame laid at his feet. The police seem more interested in an open-and-shut case than justice and a lawyer hired by Mother proves to be an ineffective advocate for Do-joon who Mother is convinced is innocent. And so she begins her own investigation to catch the true killer.

Director Joon-ho Bong proves quite adept at bringing us along for a ride that caroms about from dead end to dead end. At first Mother suspects Jin-tae to be behind the murder and she enters into his home to look for evidence of the misdeed. In a wonderfully suspenseful scene, she finds a golf club imbued with blood but Jin-tae comes home as Mother is poking and prodding which forces her into a closet. We get POV shots and close-ups of her eye as she peers out at her son's friend who is bedding a young woman. While they lay in post-coital slumbers, Mother creeps out of her hiding spot…I won't betray what happens but I will say that I was on the edge of my seat.

Mother is Psycho inverted. Here both mother and son are alive but it is the former who is the central character and is also, I would argue, the one who loses her mind although the viewer cannot be sure. At the beginning of the film she is already obsessive bordering on paranoid, but her search for the killer ends up being like Willard's voyage up the Nung River in Apocalypse Now - she finds her own heart of darkness. By the end, Bong has shown his characters to be unreliable and he unwilling to offer much of any firm closure. Do-joon has memory problems has recalls bits and pieces seemingly at random while Mother is being driven mad by her quest. Do we really know who the killer is by the time the last reel finishes? I'd argue that we don't but also that this isn't important because the film is about Mother and the bonds she shares with her son and not a strict attempt at a who dunnit.

I'd love to see the movie again because I'm sure I missed a lot on the stylistic front. Bong and his DP Kyung-Pyo Hong made some good use of the widescreen format. If my memory serves, shots which are the most ostentatious in that they place objects at extreme ends of the frame tended to introduce or end sections of the story whereas the meat of the plot is dominated by close-ups of people's faces that dominate the frame. For instance, the first section of the film introduces us to the main actors and gives us the basics of their characters. It closes with a scene in which Do-joon is urinating against a wall and Mother approaches him with a bowl of some kind of herbal remedy. As the son relieves himself, she reaches up and puts the bowl to his mouth so he can drink it. This is shot at a high angle with Mother and Do-joon drinking at the left with a river of urine flowing down the sidewalk at the upper-right part of the screen. The composition here is great and it serves as a denouement for introductory part of the movie.

Mother is notable for me in that I didn't feel that I missed out on something by not speaking Korean or being familiar with Korean culture. I don't doubt that there were bits here and there which went over my head but, for the most part, it's a universal story of a mother and how her devotion to her son results in madness. OK, this may not be a universal story per se but Mother is a tale of consanguinity and suspense that transcends borders.

|| Palmer, 11:08 AM


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