Mother, I feel the soil falling over my head


Korean auteur Joon-ho Bong’s latest, “Mother,” combines the calculated suspense and sophisticated psychological thrills of his breakthrough work “Memories of Murder” (2003), with observations of East Asian motherhood gone over the edge.

There’s so much about “Mother” that speaks to a Japanese audience: Even with the current low birthrate and women rising to executive positions in the workplace, the mother (so aptly and typically unnamed in the movie) in “Mother” hits us hard somewhere between the stomach and the heart.

Director Joon-ho Bong
Run Time 128 minutes
Language Korean

One Japanese male critic coming out of the screening room sighed and then said in a voice close to tears: “She’s a mother, and was just doing what mothers are supposed to do.” That, after two solid hours of watching Mother (Korea’s beloved TV actress Kim Hye Ja) work and slave and sacrifice her entire existence for the well-being of an idiot son. His statement recalls another in a series of conceptions about motherhood here: When women have babies, they stop wanting food or sleep for themselves by virtue of the maternal instinct conveniently kicking in. And they wonder why the birth rate has plummeted? Gimme a royal break! But oh well, that’s another story.

Still, there’s a huge amount of irritation mixed with admiration when watching Bong’s mother. Just as she refuses to absent herself from the life of her 28-year-old son, Do-joon (Won Bin), for longer than five minutes, she never exits from the screen for more than a few frames and her comely, willowy presence becomes not only dominating, but positively smothering. Mother has never known anything other than hard work (as herbalist and illegal acupuncturist in her village) and caring for Do-joon who can kindly be described as “slow.” When Do-joon doesn’t show up for one of her elaborately made meals her mind lurches into panic mode and she runs outside to look for him. At night, when they curl up together in the same mattress and the curious Do-joon touches her breast, she smiles and cradles his head. In the West, the social system would have stepped in to separate the pair long ago — in this part of the world, mother and son exist as one with Mother giving no thought to a future for Do-joon not engineered by her. In a way, the disaster that befalls Do-joon is partly her own doing; she had protected him so much he never had a chance to interact with the world, however awkwardly. When the body of a teenage girl — still wearing her school uniform — is found slumped over a rooftop railing, fingers point to Do-joon and unable to utter one coherent sentence in his own defense, he’s slapped in prison.

Mother reacts to her son’s sudden arrest by screaming his innocence to the authorities, hiring an expensive lawyer, then moving Heaven and Earth to find the killer herself. Joon-ho Bong builds the suspense Hitchcockian style (the spiraling sense of panic in “Vertigo” comes immediately to mind), but the story never completely goes into detective genre. Bong isn’t interested, for example, in the persona of the victim (her identity and life are reduced to her missing cell phone) and what material clues there are boomerang right back to Do-joon’s guilt.

The village community is drawn as ignorant and spiteful, existing as a hot-bed to breed hapless, hopeless adults like Do-joon. Bong’s gaze on Mother and son is cold and distant and at times he’s one small step away from outright accusation — against his culture and tradition and the sacrosanct legacy of long-suffering motherhood. But in the end, the story stops and steps back, leaving mother and son to contend with their own hell (or is it paradise?) where it’s just the two of them against a cruel, misunderstanding world.