Mother (Day 30)

Mother My Opinion: 5.6 || Do the strengths outweigh the flaws? I can’t decide. It’s slow to develop, many of the characters lack real depth, and the director sometimes seems more intent on tormenting his protagonist than exploring her. On the plus side of the ledger, though, the last quarter has surprising turns and is well done, with a well-developed moral dilemma.

TITLE: Mother (Madeo)
DIRECTOR: Joon-ho Bong
LANGUAGE: Korean | COUNTRY: South Korea
YEAR: 2009
PROFILE: Mystery, Drama | 129 minutes | IMDb (7.8)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of Netflix): A murder rocks a South Korean town and suspicion quickly falls on a reclusive, mentally challenged — and alibi-free — young man (Bin Won). When an inept public defender botches the boy’s case, his mother (Hye-ja Kim) sets out to prove her son’s innocence. Acclaimed director Joon-ho Bong (Memories of Murder) explores the lengths a mother will go to protect her child in this atmospheric crime thriller.

Strengths: The film does come around well in the end, with a few satisfying twists that send the (unnamed) mother into a moral quagmire. And the mother’s commitment to her son gets points for its peculiar and original intensity.

Weaknesses: Bong drags his protagonist and her son through an awful lot, and for most of the movie it’s not as revealing as it should be (and too grim to be entertaining). Until the end, the film doesn’t really work as a mystery, and it’s deficient as a drama because Bong is better at displaying the mother’s suffering and commitment than he is at illuminating it.


There is interest in the mother’s devotion to her troubled son and her lack of boundaries. But it winds up being dramatically circular: Her devotion to her son is all she has — and so that’s all she is as a character, which is not really enough. How did she wind up here? Who was his father? Who was she before her son was born? I’m not asking for pat exposition — I’m saying that it’s possible to tell a story about obsession without reducing the character to only that obsession.

Side Note: The similarities between this film and Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry (which came out the following year) strike me as odd. If IMDb weren’t telling me otherwise, I’d swear that they were created by the same person. Shy Korean woman in late middle age displays excessive devotion to a socially stunted son/grandson who is mostly a torment to her and who becomes connected to the murder of a shunned, sexually abused schoolgirl. In both films, the women are forced to grovel for money to save the boys, and in both films the women wind up discovering the truth of the crimes.


And it gets stranger because the movies also feature the same irritatingly monochromatic depictions of young men. If you were to accept the authenticity of Poetry and Mother, you’d conclude that South Korea has no boys who are capable of consideration or a gentle thought. Their social range seems to consist of assault, murder, glue sniffing, and the serial gang rape of sad girls. And girls — well, they exist to be cruelly victimized by boys, and that’s about it. Either South Korea really is a nation of teenaged sociopaths or we have two filmmakers who need (or needed in 2009-10) to develop more three-dimensional depictions of young men and women.

Best Moment: The movie opens with the mother dancing alone in a field. Whether it fits with the rest of the movie, I’m not so sure, but it’s a lovely scene. And the mother’s concluding dialogue with her son works on multiple levels and is nicely laid out.

File Under: crime, parents, children, devotion, moral dilemma, obsession