Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writer(s): Park Eun-kyo, Bong Joon-ho
Country: South Korea
Motherly love has been most sacred and revered concept throughout the human history. Until you crash into Freud’s theories in the beginning of XXth century. From that turning point the dark and sinister parts of the cultural imagination are dragged from the subconscious into the light. Just like the iconic and autobiographical novel by D. H. Lawrence Sons and Lovers, telling a story about the bonds between a mother and her sons that was a tad too strong. As the author explained himself:
A woman of character and refinement goes into the lower class and has no satisfaction in her own life … As her sons grow up, she selects them as lovers – first the eldest, then the second… But when they come to manhood, they can’t love, because their mother is the strongest power in their lives, and holds them … As soon as the young men come into contact with women there is a split. William gives himself to a superficial woman and his mother holds his soul. But the split kills him because he doesn’t know where he is. (Paul) gets a woman who fights his mother for his soul (Miriam). The son loves the mother – all the sons hate and are jealous of the father … The son decides to leave his soul in his mother’s hands, and like his elder brother, go for passion (Clara). Then the split begins to tell again. But almost unconsciously, the mother realizes what the matter is and begins to die. The son leaves his mistress, attends to his mother dying. He is left in the end naked of everything, with the drift towards death.
Though first published back in 1913, it was heavily edited, and almost a century later, in 1992, full version was available for everyone to read. (Source: Penguin Readers) As censorship becomes more open to exploration of such ideas, there is no surprise that they migrate from literature to film. Bong Joon-ho’s Mother is a great example of that. Coming from a Korean culture perspective and with a big slice of director’s signature absurd comedy, this film can be especially uncanny for Western audiences. And that is exactly the reason to watch it. Roger Ebert enjoyed the film as well, calling it an adult film without X-rated content:
A film like “Mother” is an adult film, not in the sense that it contains X-rated material, but in the sense that it appeals to intelligent grown-ups. A bright 10-year-old can understand most Hollywood films. Disney recently announced it will make only 3-D “event” movies, comic hero stories and franchises like “Pirates of the Caribbean.” It has essentially abandoned films about plausible human beings. No longer is it a luxury to see indie or alternative films. It’s a necessity to see thought provoking films of the human condition.
“Mother” will have you discussing the plot, not entirely to your satisfaction. I would argue: The stories in movies are complete fictions and can be resolved in any way the director chooses. If he actually cheats or lies, we have a case against him. If not, no matter what his strange conclusions, we can be grateful that we remained involved and even fascinated. Why do we buy a ticket? To confirm that a movie ends just the way we expect it to? (Source: Roger Ebert)
I will use three psychoanalysis terms and view the film through them. So brace yourselves, Freudian review is coming. You might want to watch it again after the review. Or never again… This review will contain spoilers!
Quick film synopsis: in a small town in rural South Korea, a horrible murder is committed. A schoolgirl is found dead put on a rooftop. Police arrest a suspect, a mentally retarded Do-joon, and make him confess the murder. Do-joon’s mother searches for the killer and tries to free her son from a flawed justice system.
Typically from the male child’s perspective, it describes the unconscious conflict played out by the child’s love and desire for his mother and his hatred for his father, insofar as the father blocks the boy’s desire for mother. The complex is “dissolved” when the boy comes to realize that he must bow to his fathers authority and allow his father priority over mother’s love. (Source: Richard Rushton, Gary Bettinson What is Film Theory?)
As a matter of fact, in “Mother” we have a reverse Oedipus complex. It is the mother that desires her son and feels tormented about this. Somewhere in the middle of film we get to know that she actually even tried to have a horrific “Romeo and Juliet” version, by poisoning her son, Do-joon, and herself.
You gave me a Bacchus bottle with insecticide in it.
I was so desperate, I was going to kill both of us… You had to be first, so that I could follow. You and me are one.
We can assume that this incident is the reason why Do-joon is rather… slow. And also mother’s tremendously overbearing quality, psychotic character, born out of shame and guilt. These feelings are her main drive throughout the film.
In Freudian psychoanalytical theory, fetishism describes a sexual perversion in which a person tries to make up for the mother’s lack of penis by inventing a substitute object. The fetish requires the simultaneous existence of contrary beliefs: at one and the same time the subject knows the mother does not have penis (hence the need for fetish object), but the fetish object also allows that subject to imagine that the mother does have penis. Source: Richard Rushton, Gary Bettinson What is Film Theory?)
As we have reversed Oedipus complex, fetishism is in reverse here as well. The Mother acts as both – male and female character, substituting her “penis” wish Chinese acupuncture needles. It reminds me of Asami in Japanese movie “Audition” by Takashi Miike – she uses needles to reverse the male/female roles. (and if you think “Mother” is rather disturbing, then I would not recommend watching Miike’s film) Here Mother becomes a kind of hermaphroditic creature, she even mentions that she got pregnant from Chinese medicine and the father is never mentioned at all. The needles themselves are only used on other female characters – she never performs acupuncture on male.
She does try to use the needles twice in murder attempts. First time on her son, in distress when he recovers memories of her trying to poison him. But he is in prison, so nothing really happens. Second time, on the junk collector, who is her suspect in the murder. However, when she finds out that he is not the killer but the only witness of her son committing the murder, she uses a sledge hammer, a male tool, to kill him. In the process of burning the man’s place down, she also loses her needles. But not for long – Do-joon finds them and symbolically gives them back to her, reaffirming her hermaphroditic existence. She accepts this blessing-curse and eventually uses the needles on herself for a relief, ending the movie in a nice full loop.
In psychoanalytic theory, castration anxiety refers to the unconscious fear that one will be castrated. For males, therefore, this anxiety is closely linked to Oedipus complex and the boy’s fear that, as consequence of his desire to be with his mother, he will be punished by his father. The boy specifically fears that this punishment will take form of castration insofar as he is aware that some humans (girls) do not have penises. The fear of castration thus is closely linked with the dissolution of Oedipus complex. Source: Richard Rushton, Gary Bettinson What is Film Theory?)
Castration anxiety is the driver of the whole film plot from Do-joon’s perspective. We see Do-joon bursting into violence when he is picked on by other people. But that night a young girl questioned his masculinity and it was his outburst that caused the tragedy. As a matter of fact in this film the girl and Do-joon are Doppelgangers, which is a fancy way of saying twins. They represent different aspects of same archetype. When we see a glimpse at the victim girl’s family it has the same absence of males as in Do-joon’s case. Her pursuit to look for male figures leads her to being sexually abused by many men in the town. Do-joon’s actions towards her is directed to himself and his own inability to find masculinity in his life and in himself.
So is Bong Joon-ho ridiculing Korean mothers for “castrating” the males? Behind this quite obvious satirical gibe looms other issue that Bong Joon-ho touched in his previous movies, especially in “Memories of Murder”. This topic is emasculated post-traumatic male discussed in depth in Pierce Conran’s analysis of the film. (See more: Modern Korean Cinema)
There is even one scene recreated from “Memories of Murder” when Do-joon is taken to crime scene to reenact his crime in front of a big crowd of people. However, he cannot do it and police have to help him out to do it correctly. Meanwhile the mother is giving out leaflets explaining innocence of her son.
Yet this absence of the mother had hardly nullified her fascinating and spectral presence, which is structured around the male subject’s unconscious desire to return safely to his place of origin. Even though the mothers are not ubiquitously present they are central to the narratives. (…) In Memories there are extremely few female characters and they add very little to the plot, which is not to say they are not “ubiquitously present”. We learn about Det. Park’s family and up until the very end, where he has built his own family away from his past, the only woman we see that he has something beyond a work-based relationship with is the women he is sleeping with. She embodies both “the mother and the whore”, a condensed narrative of sorts. (Source: Modern Korean Cinema)
In “Mother” director brings the mother into center of the film, but it is not this “safe place of origin” as this wandering male would expect. In this case (it is even more uncanny as the mother takes the role of lover, not vice versa). You cannot change one part of society without affecting the other. With incompetence emasculated males, females take up part of their role, but this creates an unwanted hybrid, a monster.
Assigning blame in this case is not turned to any individual males per se, but to The Man, the Forces that Be. As in almost every New Wave Korean movie like The Chaser, Confessions of Murder, they are embodied by incompetent police officers.
How police try to resolve problems:
The hit-and-run and the assault cancel each other out. The verbal threats don’t factor in.
Other examples are the intellectuals, a professor in a Mercedes hurrying to a golf course and in the process hitting Do-joon at the very beginning of the film. Or other higher classes, like lawyers who pretend to be so important and busy, while actually getting dead drunk with young female attendants in Korean karaoke bar.
– I never sit in buffets, it is more economical this way.
Mother: – Oh I know you are a very busy man.
And the last but not the least is the Junk Man. Though in essence he did not do anything wrong, and we get to know him as quite a nice man, one has to realize that he observed a crime happening, violence against a young schoolgirl and he did and said nothing about it. This last example is probably the most scary indicator of apathy in society, as famous quote says:
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Thus “Mother” moves way beyond being a satiric film about an overbearing mother. It is an example of society’s self-psychoanalysis trying to cope with the changes and the traumas of the modern world when old structures of patriarchy and clear societal roles are failing.
Film’s narrative quality also supported by great camera work, discussed in detail by Tony Zhou in “Every Frame a Painting”:
It does not matter if you agree or disagree with these psychoanalytic interpretations, “Mother” is a film well worth watching, one that plays with the boundaries of cultural taboos.