Director: Bong Joon Ho (South Korea). Year of Release: 2009
An older woman makes her way through a corn field, occasionally looking behind her. Gradually, music starts playing on the soundtrack. You’re not sure if the woman can hear the music but forever reason, she starts dancing, a beatific smile filling her face.
Cut to: a small shop where the same woman is chopping herbs. She looks out of the shop door to see a man in his twenties dancing with a dog on the other side of the road. Suddenly, a car rushes past and hits him. The woman runs over and sees that he’s bleeding. But he gets up and, together with a mate, jumps into a taxi and tries to follow the car. They tell the taxi driver to go to the country club – the car was a Merc and that’s the only place you’ll find people who drive Mercs.
Arriving at the country club, they find the offending vehicle and – slightly unsuccessfully – start to vandalise it. The best damage they do is to rip off the wing mirror. They then go in search of a golf cart which they ambush and attack with sticks. The police are called, and when it’s the word of a couple of working class lads against some well connected golf club types, there’s only one winner. The lads – Do-Joon and Jin-tae – are arrested, with Do-Joon copping most of the blame.
Do-Joon is what we used to call a bit backwards. On more than one occasion, the German subtitles have people calling him spasti, and I think we can all guess what that means. After being released from the police station, he arranges to meet up with Jin-tae in a bar. Jin-tae doesn’t turn up and Do-Joon ends up getting pissed and walking home – very close to where a schoolgirl called Ah-Jung is murdered, and her body prominently displayed across the railings on a rooftop.
After a golf ball with Do-Joon’s name on it is found near the body (he’s been nicking them from the golf course as to someone like him they are worth an awful lot), he is arrested again. Given the amount he’d had to drink, there’s no way that he can accurately account for where and when he was the previous evening. The police talk him into signing a false confession and he is sent down for murder.
This slightly comical piece of social satire is just a prelude to the main part of The Mother, which is Do-Joon’s mother doggedly trying to prove his innocence. She uncovers allegations of Ah-Jung’s promiscuity (she was particularly fond of payment in rice cakes) and of some compromising photos that were still on her phone. Two young men take one of Ah-Jung’s friends down a darkened alley and threaten her, demanding to know where they can find Ah-Jung’s phone.
We also learn of Do-Joon’s troubled relationship with his mother. Early on in the film, when asked whether he’d ever slept with a woman he said yes, my mother – and indeed they do share a bed (although there’s no clear evidence of incest). Later, Do-Joon accuses his mother of poisoning him, which possibly brought on his mental problems. In terms of socially acceptable family relationships, this is more Norman Bates than Little House on the Prairie.
The mother tracks down a junk collector, a man who Do-Joon remembers from the night of the murder, and whose photo can be found on Ah-Jung’s phone. The junk collector threatens to report his version of the fateful evening until the mother intervenes. Witnesses and (most) evidence are quickly and successfully dealt with.
Director Bong Joon Ho would go on to make Snowpiercer and Parasite, and – the country club opening notwithstanding – Mother does not contain quite the same mixture of class hatred and tight structure that oozes from the later films. And yet, you get clear glimpses of what is to come. There is no trust in the police or lawyers to get things done, which may be just as well, as the film shows little interest in punishing the people who are technically guilty.
Mother is a plea for family and community above state justice. In many hands, this can be quite a reactionary philosophy, but here it is somehow progressive and life-affirming. It helps that Do-Joon is one of society’s victims, subject to continual abuse. We feel duty bound to take his side, whatever he may or may not have actually done.
While it’s good that Mother has a woman in the lead role, other parts of it may not have aged well. There is an implicit attempt to label Ah-Jung as somehow responsible for her own fate because she enjoyed sex, and while it’s clear that the abuse that Do-Joon receives is meant to make him more sympathetic, it’s still not great to hear (or rather read) this sort of terminology on-screen. Nonetheless, this is a film which is pregnant with so much potential that it shouldn’t be ignored.