Directed by Bong Joon Ho
You can feel the desperation on Mother‘s (Hye-ja Kim) face, in her eyes and consuming her whole person when it comes to clearing her son’s name of murder. Her son, Do-joon (Bin Won) is very clearly mentally challenged to some degree, but the world takes advantage of him, and his mother is the only line of defense he has. The first time we see Do-joon, he is nearly run over by a Mercedes, and his mother looks on intensely, even before the car races by, as if she expects something to go wrong at any moment. After he’s hit by the car, she races out to him, but Do-joon runs off with his friend Jin-tae (Ku Jin), in pursuit of the car that hit him.
We’re meant to feel an intense empathy for Do-joon’s mother. It feels like the world has forgotten about her, but she’s too busy caring for her adult son to notice. All she has, from what we can tell, is her son, and she worries for him like you would for a balloon floating around in a room full of knives.
The inciting incident of Mother is when a girl, Moon Ah-jeong, turns up dead, hung over the side of a small abandoned house. It doesn’t take long for the police to arrest Do-joon for murder, and we understand why. In the first sequence of the film, we establish that Do-joon has a bit of an anger streak, he is perhaps led astray by Jin-tae, he has trouble remembering recent events, he’s a bit of a drunk (or he’s just young), and he followed Moon Ah-jeong to that small house before heading home to sleep beside his mother, which doesn’t go uncommented on by other people in the town (“you sleep with your mother?” they ask incredulously, to which Do-joon responds matter of factly, “yes”).
So we know that Do-joon was in the neighborhood of the murder, and the police say they found a golf ball (on which he has written his own name) at the crime scene. We continue to follow Do-joon until he signs a confession to the murder, and thus ends act 1.
All of this set up establishes why we might doubt that Do-joon could commit the murder. Everyone seems to be taking advantage of him, and the police either don’t know or don’t care that Do-joon is mentally handicapped. It’s up to his mother, then, to clear his name of murder.
The third sequence of the film, starting at the beginning of act 2, is all about how his mother tries to get him the best legal representation possible. The lawyer, though, could care less about Do-joon, just like everyone else. It’s heartbreaking to watch the efforts his mother goes through to put on a good face and make nice, despite her own creeping hysteria, to save her son’s life. When the lawyer hardly gives her the time of day, we feel for her.
It becomes clear that the lawyer won’t fight for Do-joon, either because he similarly could care less for the poor kid or because he understands the way the system works and knows that this is just about as definitive a closed case as their is. Either way, Do-joon’s mother takes it upon herself to work around the law. In a meeting between the three of them, including the lawyer, Do-joon suddenly remembers that he never did something his friend Jin-tae accused him of. In act 1, when the two boys pursue the hit-and-run Mercedes, Jin-tae kicks the side mirror off of one Mercedes (the wrong one nonetheless) and later he tells Do-joon that it was his fault, which Do-joon believed. This moment tells Do-joon’s mother (and the audience) that Jin-tae must have some role in the murder and is setting up Do-joon, particularly since he could have planted the golf ball bearing Do-joon’s name at the crime scene.
In the fourth sequence of the film, the mother’s goal becomes to investigate Jin-tae’s role in the crime. It helps that when she sneaks into his house, she finds a golf club (connecting back to the incident in act 1) that appears to have blood on it. This couldn’t be any more suspicious, but of course it’s too perfect. Everything in this sequence sets up Jin-tae as the guilty party, but when the mother brings this evidence to the police station, they let her know that it’s just lipstick and not blood on the golf club (“anyone can see that this is lipstick,” one officer says).
Jin-tae gets angry with Do-joon’s mother that night, understandably, but then his character pivots and lets her know that he really is Do-joon’s friend. He’s not trying to set him up. Jin-tae then asks her some revealing questions about the murder which steer her back on track. Why would the body be raised up to the roof instead of buried? Was the killer showing off? This is when the story opens up, and Do-joon’s mother kicks her investigation into second gear. This is also the midpoint of the story.
In sequence five, we get a kind of training/investigating montage as Do-joon jumps into the mystery. She (and the audience) suddenly learn a lot about Moon Ah-jeong: She would get recurring bloody noses, she visited a print shop to print out cell phone photos, and some people called her “Rice Cake Girl.”
Do-joon’s mother visits him in prison, and after getting into a fight (when another inmate calls him “retard” which he never handles well), he tells her that he remembers. He’s not talking about the night of the murder, though, because he still doesn’t remember all of the details that night. Instead he’s talking about the time his mother tried to kill him when he was five. Do-joon’s mother, knowing that he was mentally handicapped, tried to make him drink poison before she did the same, but the poison wasn’t strong enough, and they survived, only suffering from a two-day sickness.
In many ways this story feels like a lot of other detective/wrongfully imprisoned stories, but it’s moments like this that really set it apart. This story is truly, truly dark and in many ways disturbing. Knowing that Do-joon’s mother tried to kill him colors in their relationship from what we’ve been told. When they sleep together, it’s a bit Oedipus-ian, but it’s also influenced by her guilt and extreme need to protect him at all costs. She doesn’t just want to save him from the world because he’s mentally handicapped, she wants to save him from herself, and to do so, she must completely lose all sense of herself as an individual in order to become an absolute and complete caregiver for her son. Hell, in the opening scene, she cuts her own finger and doesn’t realize it because she is wholeheartedly consumed by fear for her son.
So Do-joon’s mother falls into a quick depression following this visit with her son. It’s only brief because the movie is still a movie and has to burn through the plot, meaning she is given maybe a scene or two of wallowing in her own misery before something convinces her to jump back into the investigation. This moment also raises the stakes because it now feels like it’s her responsibility to clear her son’s name, making up for what she did to him as a child.
In sequence six, Do-joon’s mother overhears two men discussing Moon Ah-jeong and her cellphone. Do-joon’s mother calls upon Jin-tae to help her interrogate these men, and it comes to light that Moon Ah-jeong slept around with older men but then took pictures of all of them with her cellphone in order to blackmail them. One of these men tells Jin-tae that whoever murdered Moon Ah-jeong will be somewhere in that phone.
After finding the phone (from Moon Ah-jeong’s alcoholic grandmother), Do-joon’s mother gets her son to remember more of the night of the murder, and he comes up with the face of an old man with gray hair. His mother finds that face in the phone, and she recognizes the man.
Do-joon’s mother visits the man in his scrap metal workshop, looking for answers about the night of the murder and, more specifically, a reason to find him guilty of the crime. There is no doubt in her mind that this older man is the one responsible for the murder, but when he volunteers information about that night it surprises Do-joon’s mother. He goes on to fill in the blanks of that night, both what Do-joon doesn’t remember and what we, the audience, have never seen. It’s a brutal, tension-packed sequence in which we see that Moon Ah-jeong, angry that Do-joon followed her, presumably for sex, throws a rock at him, and when she calls him a “retard,” he throws the rock right back, killing her.
The whole scene is shot from inside the abandoned house, through the old man’s perspective. He sees Do-joon through a transparent tarp which slightly distorts the boy’s image in a way to make him appear much more sinister, even if we know there was no malicious intent. After hitting the girl with the rock, Do-joon panics, and in one moment he rapidly opens and closes his phone, not sure what to do next. You can almost see the wiring in his brain coming apart, sparks flying everywhere. He simply can’t process what he’s done or what he should do. Ultimately he drags Moon Ah-jeong to the roof.
Do-joon’s mother cannot bear to hear this. She shrieks like she did at the prison when her son told her he remembered how she tried to kill him, and without thinking, she repeatedly bashes the old man’s head in after he tells her he should call the cops with this information.
To cover up the murder, Do-joon’s mother burns down the building, and thus ends act two.
It’s unclear, right away, where the story will go from here. The bulk of the film is about Do-joon’s mother’s desperate search to clear his name, not to find the truth. She only stumbled upon the truth accidentally, but she always considered the truth and her son’s innocence one in the same. Almost cruelly, Do-joon is released from prison, found not guilty because another boy was found with Moon Ah-jeong’s blood on his clothing (though he said it was from her nosebleeds, which the cops didn’t believe).
Do-joon’s mother visits this boy in prison, and it seems like she might confess, but when he says he has no parents, she keeps her mouth shut, even as she wails and wails, unable to cope with her guilt for her son’s actions as well as her own.
Do-joon is released from prison, and he genuinely has no recollection of committing the murder, even though Do-joon’s mother knows he’s guilty. In another great scene, Do-joon tells his mother that he has been wondering why the killer would drag the body to the roof, and he decides (correctly) that the killer must have known that the body would be visible by the whole town from up there, and she was bleeding so it was the best and only way to get her the required medical attention she needed. This only makes everything even more heartbreaking, and his mother has to sit there in silence, offering nothing in return to this speculation.
There was a point in which it seemed like Do-joon’s mother might actually kill him, paying off the set up that she tried to when he was five. Nothing felt too extreme to happen at this point in the movie, but instead his mother leaves him to go on some kind of trip organized for parents (I have no idea what this excursion was). On the bus, Do-joon’s mother sits alone while the other mothers dance. Then she takes out an acupuncture needle and places it in her thigh, hoping it will help her forget what she knows.
The camera cuts to a shot outside of the bus in which all we hear is the non-diegetic music that fills the scene. We watch as Do-joon’s mother, now just a silhouette and almost ghost-like, gets up and starts dancing with the other mothers. She blends into the crowd so that we can’t even recognize her, but all she has is her silhouette, as if everything else within her has vanished, vacuumed out of her along with her memory of the crimes she has committed.
I love this film, as well as the others by Bong Joon Ho I have seen (The Host, Snowpiercer). His movies feel so unique from his other movies because they’re different genre movies, but at the same time they stand out from the genre they’re so attached to. The Host, for example, is a film about a river monster, but the story is more about mass hysteria, fear mongering, and one family working admirably together in a situation/genre that tends to glorify people picking each other apart.
And Mother is a murder investigation much like many similar films (or HBO’s The Night Of), but it’s really a story about a woman who has lost so much of herself to care for her son, mostly out of guilt, that she will do anything to cling to him, even if it means letting go of all truth and objectivity. She needs to clear his name more than she needs to believe he’s innocent. Early in act 2, Do-joon’s mother even tells him that he should never sign the confession even if he did kill the girl. From the outset her goal is to get her son back, because she has invested so much of herself in him that he is the only thing connecting her to the real world, even if we can see that her relationship with Do-joon is rather isolating precisely because of how much she pours into him with nothing in return.
It’s a story about a woman’s desperation to hold onto the one thing she has allowed herself to gleam meaning from. This might as well be a story about a devoutly religious person finding out that their chosen religion is responsible for all evil in the world. There’s never an opportunity for this person to consider that their religion is bad because it’s their religion. The goal is to return to point A, where there is no room for doubt in one’s religion of their family.
Watching this film a second time will be mesmerizing, I think, with the knowledge that Do-joon really did commit the murder, even if it was an accident. So much of the first half of the film, and just about all of it actually, is centered on the feeling that Do-joon’s mother is completely innocent and up against a Goliath of police ineptitude and a community’s wrath against her. We’re right there with his mother, but suddenly her behavior becomes much more desperate, unstable and even malicious when you know that she’s wrong. In one scene, for instance, she shows up at a service for Moon Ah-jeong and tells the dead girl’s family that her son is innocent. This… doesn’t go over well, and a fight breaks out.
So Mother is an incredible film. Bong Joon Ho has a way of giving you what is promised from a movie poster and then offering up so much more. Each of his films, from what I’ve gathered, feel like they could follow this template: “This isn’t just a __________ movie, it’s a movie about _________” in which the first blank spot is where you enter a genre, and the second is where you enter a theme. All good movies are (or should be) about something more than what’s promised in the movie poster or trailer, but Bong Joon Ho seems to do so without fooling the audience. This is still a fun, juicy murder investigation movie, but he just slips in the real heart and horror of the film underneath the surface. It leaves me with the feeling that this is what every genre movie should be, and if it’s not then it’s missing the point.