마더 (Mother)

A Barunson Production
Distribution: CJ Entertainment
Rating: 18 and Over
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 128 Min
Shooting Time: N/A
Release: 2009/May/28

WITH 김혜자 (Kim Hye-Ja) as Do-Joon's Mother; 원빈 (Won Bin) as Do-Joon; 진구 (Jin Gu) as Jin-Tae; 윤제문 (Yoon Je-Moon) as Je-Moon; 전미선 (Jeon Mi-Seon) as Mi-Seon; 송새벽 (Song Sae-Byeok) as Detective; 이영석 (Lee Young-Seok) as Old Man; 문희라 (Moon Hee-Ra) as Moon Ah-Jung; 천우희 (Cheon Woo-Hee) as Mi-Na; 김병순 (Kim Byung-Soon) as Chief; 이미도 (Lee Mi-Do) as Student;

CREW Director 봉준호 (Bong Joon-Ho) Executive Producer 문양권 (Moon Yang-Kwon) | Screenplay 박은교 (Park Eun-Gyo) 봉준호 (Bong Joon-Ho) | Director of Photography 홍경표 (Hong Kyung-Pyo) Lighting 박동순 (Park Dong-Soon) 최철수 (Choi Cheol-Soo) Editor 문세경 (Moon Se-Kyung) Music 이병우 (Lee Byung-Woo) Art Direction 류성화 (Ryu Seong-Hwa) Costumes 최세연 (Choi Se-Yeon) Action Choreography 정두홍 (Jung Doo-Hong) 허명행 (Hur Myeong-Haeng)

KOFIC Nationwide
TOTAL REVENUE: 19,970,859,600 Won
BUDGET: 6,200,000,000 Won

Photo ⓒ Barunson, CJ Entertainment


Widowed for a long time, a mother lives alone with her only son. He is 28 years old, a shy and quiet young man. In the aftermath of a terrible murder, the woman’s hopeless, helpless son becomes the prime suspect. There is no real evidence against him, but the police throw groundless suspicion at him. Eager to close the case, the police are happy with their cursory investigation and arrest the boy. His defense attorney turns out to be incompetent and unreliable. Faced with no other choice, his mother gets involved, determined to prove her son’s innocence. [KoBiz]


The crimson mantle of light and shadows before sunrise, one last bittersweet goodbye to a day almost gone; their hands in the air, sparkles of youth from many moons past all together embracing that withering light before darkness once again comes. Dancing, screaming, laughing, burning with passion despite the aching vestiges of the past, as if no worry in the world could ever break those fleeting moments of jubilation, solace and a little bit of eerie madness. There is no illusion, no empty chimera for those who know the dark side of the moon. Just a few sweet, mad minutes, when the beast strips the mask, and like all creatures great and small dances around the feeble, unyielding fire of life. Because they're women, mothers, nature's most beautiful and puzzling invention. Saints and whores, monsters and goddesses; a life's companion, best friend and a lot more.

I'm generally not one to be taken aback by single scenes, particularly when it comes to storytellers as diabolically talented as Bong Joon-Ho. But, and I wouldn't worry about spoilers, one particular moment from a so-called "minor" work of his known as 마더 (Mother) might just be amongst the most beautiful and placidly terrifying moments in all of modern Korean cinema. It turns out that Bong waited no less than five years to shoot said scene, jotted as number two on the notebook he so lovingly conserved in between escapades along the Han River and curious, solitary trips to Tokyo. On the top of that page was just a name. Hers and no one else's. Kim Hye-Ja.

The most curious aspect of Bong's cinematic world, set aside all the obvious factors which turned him into that rare combination of wild mainstream acceptance and cult status amongst the "non-philistine," has always been the sudden, ingenuous whims of a twelve year old film buff pulsating inside the skeleton of a master filmmaker. Most of Bong Joon-Ho's films start from curious, at times even childish little slices of life, moments that perhaps only cinema can fully explain. In Mother's case, it was an excursion to Mt. Odae during Bong's youth. You know, the whole ordeal: elders, dried squid, rivers of soju, loud trot music pumping inside the bus all the way to their destination. But the funny thing was that these senior citizens (mostly those infamous ajumma) kept dancing even when the bus had reached the mountain pass' entrance. For one hour straight. Bong thought it was just an embarrassment back then - a lousy, noisy parade of old farts and nothing more. But now he seems to understand what that moment meant, enough that he made a film about it.

Sure enough, two of Mother's highlights are pretty much a recreation of those moments: the first quite abstract, almost surreal, madly eccentric but also strangely sexy and with an eclectic aftertaste which keeps caressing your eyes and ears even days after the film is consigned to the dark meanders of your mind. The second, well, by now you can guess it has to do with a bus and dancing housewives. They're like two solitary artistic flourishes, set at polar opposites of what is a delicious exercise in economy and minimalism. Of course this doesn't mean that the film doesn't look good. Far from it. DP Hong Kyung-Pyo's first partnership with Bong on his first cinemascope affair shows moments of pure visual and technical brilliance, but they're always smartly buried inside the storytelling, as is Lee Byung-Woo's irresistibly subtle score. They don't become a character on their own, like they would in a Lee Myung-Se film. The minimalism here refers more to Bong's sense of pacing, his editing choices and the way he envelops this story around its thematic consciousness. If you take those two virtuoso moments out of the equation, then it's all a rather matter-of-fact affair, with nary a wasted scene, not a second spent indulging on a character's reaction or a certain mood, to generate feelings on cue. It's all so eerily smooth and nonchalantly immersive that only once you're removed from a genre-based storytelling approach (i.e. whodunit tropes) you can start to really look at the exquisite details and narrative tapestry on display.

What has changed and made Bong's film hit even harder, then, is Mother's strongly introspective themes. 플란다스의 개 (Barking Dogs Never Bite), 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder) and 괴물 (The Host) all basked in political and social satire and were influenced by external narrative antagonists (such as, obviously, the cute little monster). But Mother's pathos is almost completely resolved introspectively. There seems to be no more time for pungent satire, as what we get is bleak reality treated with Bong's usual irony, which in turn mirrors today's social climate in Korea. Call it "2009 Lost Memories," if you will - a bad pun on a pretty silly blockbuster of a few years past whose title sadly fits today's Korean psyche like a glove, as it seems like letting bad memories evaporate into the alluring fumes of oblivion is the new calling card for a people tired of living in distress, even when the price to pay for so-called "emotional prosperity" is a little decadence, along with the gradual erosion of freedom and diversity. Still, despite the slightly darker tones of Mother compared to Bong's past works, what once again transpires is how effectively a period's smell, sights and sounds can ooze from his works.

If we got 수사반장 (Chief Inspector) reruns, violent underground questioning and the endearing ineptitude of the 80s Jeon Du-Hwan junta-based Memories of Murder, and the off-kilter, post-IMF crisis family mores of The Host, what Mother serves us with is a dose of 2000s pungent scent, specifically of Lee Myung-Bak's Korea. It's peculiar how all the similarities between this film and Memories of Murder based on their respective time periods sort of mirror some of the political and social developments which are dominating today's Korean society. What is different, though, is that there are no ordinary heroes anymore, just beasts laid bare by the system; beasts who try to survive and protect what they cherish, at the cost of letting all that ethical maelstrom ravage their souls. If Memories of Murder brimmed with chaotic violence borne out of the "glorious" 80s, the invisible violence against the weak displayed in Mother is all the more painful - perhaps because many people are living it as we speak. As subtle as the social commentary in the film might be, those elements emerge with impressive resonance.

I've nearly only spoken about Bong Joon-Ho so far, but this film belongs to one fantastic performer first and foremost: Kim Hye-Ja. Sure, Won Bin gives a surprisingly multi-layered performance, and the rest of the cast is an exercise in restraint and savoring every chance you are given, from Yoon Je-Moon to the animal-like panache of Jin Gu. But it was for Kim Hye-Ja that Bong made this film, trying to convince her ever since Memories of Murder wrapped up. It's a shame that a lot of the aura Kim projects in this film will be lost on the International audience, because the last thirty years of her career have mostly been spent on TV, playing the quintessential mother figure for weekend drama queens like Kim Soo-Hyun, Kim Jung-Soo and Park Jung-Ran, so the contrast will be less explicit.

What was so frustrating about Kim, whose last film appearance was alongside the late Choi Jin-Shil in 1999's 마요네즈 (Mayonnaise), is that her career was sort of commoditized by the same factors which brought her fame. First with 전원일기 (Country Diaries) throughout the 80s, then 1992's monster hit 사랑이 뭐길래 (What is Love) and countless other "mothers," her talent was slowly and inexorably watered down by the same old characters (albeit played with the same playful verve). Frustrating because if you've seen her rare escapades into non-mother territory, such as her guest starring as a killer straight out of a Melville flick in an episode of Chief Inspector during the late 1970s, you'll see what kind of largely untested potential she always had.

We're dealing with one of the most beloved and respected icons in the industry, someone who projected a gentle, laid-back image for decades, and who is notorious for her involvement with charities over the years, so perhaps it was going to be a challenge to see the other side of the coin, at least on cinematic terms. The image of the "Korean mother" Kim Soo-Hyun and Kim Jung-Soo have created along with her acting over the decades was that of someone still tied by traditional (patriarchal and Confucian-based) social mores, but escaping from that glass ceiling from time to time with some pungent sparks of energy -- particularly memorable were her sudden tirades against hubbies Lee Soon-Jae in What is Love and Kim Seong-Gyeom in 1999's 장미와 콩나물 (Roses & Beansprouts). Perhaps that's what intrigued Bong, beyond all the respect and admiration he had for Kim. The challenge of bringing out all the fire that she had to conceal for decades. The results are, simply put, astounding.

Think of the scene where she tries to convince the family of the victim that her son is innocent. As she looks at them in the eyes and mutters a gentle "my son could never do something like that," hell fire and brimstone explode inside those pupils, as if a dormant dragon was freed from captivity after unnerving decades of silence. It's just riveting to watch her go from over-possessive mother to the peculiar, quasi-incestuous nuances she oozes, not to mention that final moment of liberation. As good as 박쥐 (Thirst) and a few other films might (turn out to) be, if we see a better performance than this before 2009 is over, then I'm afraid we've got some serious pills of greatness awaiting for us, because Kim Hye-Ja is just majestic here.

Mother is many things which remind of Bong's older exploits, but also shows the possibility of a new direction, elements which could seriously come into play in a few years, when his insanely promising 설국열차 (Le Transperceneige) hits theaters. Memories of Murder might still be his flagbearer and the high point of Korean cinema's renaissance, but this young director has built such tremendously diverse and accomplished body of work after only a few films that I'd be inclined to even use that trite old cliche: the sky is the limit. Can Bong Joon-Ho do no wrong? He probably can. Who knows, maybe one day he even will.

But today? Oh mother, today's not that day. Not by a long shot....

Originally Published on Twitchfilm - 2009/Apr/04


90 김혜자 (Kim Hye-Ja)
78 윤제문 (Yoon Je-Moon)
75 천우희 (Cheon Woo-Hee)
75 전미선 (Jeon Mi-Seon)
72 진구 (Jin Gu)
72 이영석 (Lee Young-Seok)
70 김병순 (Kim Byung-Soon)
70 이미도 (Lee Mi-Do)
68 원빈 (Won Bin)
65 문희라 (Moon Hee-Ra)
57 송새벽 (Song Sae-Byeok)


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