In 2002, a small little film called “The Way Home” became the biggest box office hit in South Korea. Koreans seemed to find in the film a reaffirmation of the values they held dear: unselfishness and unconditional love for the family. However, the film’s depiction of Korean mothers is often a troubling one. The grandmother is not a person in herself, but an expression of the collective guilt of a nation for their parents and grandparents. Crippled, mute, the grandmother is basically the grandson’s slave. Not one word of resentment, complaint or reprimand is uttered when the grandson steals from her, abuses and takes advantage of her. The connection is clear near the end credits when we read that the film is dedicated to all the grandmothers in the world: grandmothers (especially Korean ones) are destined to suffer silently, such is their lot in life, and we as Koreans should try to understand and help them.
Bong Joon-Ho’s “Mother” takes on the Korean masochistic mother and pushes it even further and what comes out is very disturbing. Boon uses Kim Hye-ja, everybody’s mom from Korean television, in the role of Kim Hye-ja, a mother who desperately tries to prove the innocence of her son who has been accused of murdering a young school girl. However, Hye-Ja is no cipher; in fact, she takes charge of the investigation and adroitly learns to navigate the underworld of her town and its criminal justice system. However, this mother’s self-sacrifice and unconditional love for her son come to a very different outcome than” The Way Home”; murder and the loss of her sanity. In fact, as Bong points out the Korean pronunciation of the English word ¨murder¨ sounds a lot like ¨mother¨.
The relationship that exists between Hye-ja and her son Do-joon is almost primordial; Boon calls it “instinctual in an animalistic way”.
The blood that binds mother and son is a key idea in the film and in Korean society. Koreans don’t like to adopt children outside their families, because they don’t share the same blood. Similarly, many Koreans like to boast of their racial purity – the same people sharing the same blood. Blood connects Hye-ja and her son Do-joon. Hye-ja insists they are one. After Do-joon is hit by a hit-and-run driver, Hye-ja mistakes her own blood for Do-joon´s blood – she had accidently cut herself and stained his clothes.
In the course of her investigation, the murdered victim’s best friend asks Hye-Ja to go to the store to buy some sanitary pads as a ruse to get rid of her. At the store, the young female cashier gives Hye-ja a strange look because of her age. Hye-Ja may not “bleed” anymore because of menopause, but she does bleed for her son and makes others bleed as well.
In the end, it is blood that connects the supposed killer with the victim for the police when they find the blood of the victim Moon Ah-jung on another boy nicknamed “crazy JT” who is currently in jail. JT said that Moon Ah-Jung had frequently nosebleeds while they had sex. This seems plausible to the audience because we see her have a nosebleed with her best friend in a photo shop during a flashback.
Water seems to represent a foreboding of things to come.
Hye-Ja tells police officer Je-Mun that Do-Joon couldn´t even hurt a water bug while the rain pours outside the car. It always rains when Hye-Ja suffers a setback, when detective Je-Mun tells her to consider the case 100% closed, when the blood on Jin-tae´s golf club turns out be lipstick or when attorney Gong suggests sending Do-Joon away for only four years.
While staking out the Jin-tae’s house, Hye-Ja accidentally knocks over water bottle, the water oozes out of the bottle much in the same way the blood oozes out of her victim´s head later on the film’s finale. Hye-ja covers up Do-joon´s urine on a wall outside just like she covers up her son’s murder later on.
After the meeting with attorney Gong, we see an insert of young boy offering a small bottle of medicine, a reference to when she tried to poison herself and her son when he was five years old. The next shot is of Hye-Ja throwing up in a toilet from the hangover from the meeting. But we learn later on that after the poisoning, “instead of dying, Hye-Ja and her son spent two days vomiting and shitting water.”
The mentally handicapped
I read recently that some Korean families with mentally handicapped children often claim refugee status in the West. They often cite prejudice, bullying, and a lack of governmental support and social acceptance. Korean culture often places blame on the parents of a mentally challenged person – the transmission of bad blood. Parents in Korea see their developmentally challenged children as evidence for the failure as parents. Although we never find out the reason why Hye-Ja tried to poison her son and herself, given Hye-Ja’s circumstances in the film, it would certainly be understandable to a Korean audience. Single mothers with children born out of wedlock are not tolerated in Korean society. Another Korean film “Marathon” about another mother and her autistic son and the challenges they face from society tried to change prejudices long held in Korean society.
Financial settlements in lieu of litigation are commonplace in Korea. The police urge the professors and Jin-tae, Do-Joon’s best friend, to come to an agreement rather than go to court. Mother brings the police ginseng energy drinks to the police officers to win favor. In Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry”, the fathers of the students who participated in a gang rape offer the victim´s mother money rather than ruin the future of their sons.
Hye-Ja apparently hires the most expensive lawyer in the country, attorney Gong, who seems more interested in buffets, ¨hostess¨ bars and scolding the manners of the younger generation. It is doubtful that attorney Gong is that expensive, because as officer Je-Mun points out, ¨Not that she can afford to do anything¨. Justice requires money in Korea. As attorney Gong´s associate relates, in monetary terms, if this were Seoul, the fee they are charging wouldn´t even cover a case of assault involving two broken teeth.
As it turns out (Do-Joon actually did murder the high school girl), attorney Gong offers her the most humane and ultimately the most moral option, four years in a hospital (not a jail) although she is blind to it. Ironically, this moral option is a backroom deal that attorney Gong makes with an ex high school classmate, the president of Apape Psychiatric Hospital, and his bar exam classmate.
As in Bong Joon-Ho’s “Memories of Murder”, police investigations resemble circuses. Detectives take their cues from television shows like CSI, re-enacting murder scenes in front of crowds, dropping the heads of mannequins representing the murder victims, or crashing a car when chased by a mother of a suspect.
The police insist it’s not police torture, but under interrogation, the police kick apples from Do-joon´s mouth under the guise of the sport sepak takraw. It is not police torture when they are hitting an apple even though the apple is in the suspect´s mouth.
The police’s lack of professionalism makes the police all too human. It is also makes it funny also. The world weary, cynical demeanor of the police (from television?) seems risible when you consider that this has been the town’s first murder since most can remember.
In fact, the lines between police officer, criminal, suspect or regular citizen are often blurry. Hye-Ja used to bring police officer Je-Mun ginseng energy drinks when he was in high school. Jin-tae, Do-joon’s best friend, reads books on scientific investigation and wears a police baseball hat when he does his own “interrogation” of two known classmates of the murder victim. He says “It’s in my blood… If it were me, I’d never investigate like that.” This is a town where everyone knows each other too well, where everybody was once friends, classmates, neighbours, or acquaintances.
Bong’s film is not only about a murder, it is about a memory of a murder. In fact, his 2003 film was called “Memories of Murder”. The Mother-Murder title refers to first the first obvious murder, but it also foreshadows the mother’s own murder towards the end of the film. Then, of course, there is also Hye-Ja’s attempted “murder” of herself and her son, the memory of which has been buried for so long. In an attempt to help Do-joon with the “temples of doom” technique, she inadvertently makes him remember the time when she gave him a Bacchus bottle of insecticide. She is the only one who knows the acupuncture point on his thigh “that can loosen the knots in his heart and clear the horrible memories from his mind”.
Bullies and Violence
In a society which prides itself in being homogenous, everybody who is different feels alienated from the rest of society. Moon Ah-jung´s mother died early, her father ran off with another woman and she lives with her alcoholic grandmother. She is used and abused by men who call her the “rice cake” girl because she can be “bought” with some rice.
But even Ah-jung calls Do-joon a “stupid retard”, which evokes an automatic violent response from Do-joon. Do-joon’s mother has raised him to fight back against the bullies that he must have endured while growing up. “If they insult you, kick their ass. If they hit once, hit them twice”. When Do-joon threw back the large rock killing Ah-jung, he was just doing what his mother taught him to do. In a sense, doesn’t that make the mother equally as guilty of Ah-jung’s death?