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August 05, 2010


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Bong Jooh-ho - 2009
Magnolia Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Bong Joon-ho could have used the title Memories of Murder instead of Mother, had he not used it six years earlier. Bong’s new film is not a sequel, but in some ways a continuation of that earlier film in its subject matter of murder in a relatively small community. The twist is that instead of a big city cop showing the small town police how to investigate the crime, the investigation is done by the mother of the alledged murderer.

The young man accused of murder has a memory like a sieve. Not only does Do-joon sometimes forget what he’s doing within a few minutes, but he’s suseptable to others creating memories for him. Early in the film, he confesses to kicking a car side mirror, an act done by Do-joon’s friend, Jin-tae. A young woman is murdered, her body virtually draped over a balcony where she can be easily seen. Based on circumstantial evidence, Do-joon is arrested, and even confesses to the murder.

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Do-Joon’s mother doggedly is insistant on her son’s innocence, pursing every possible lead. The film is in part a mystery, but it also shares elements of Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, where a crminal investigation is also an examination of class structure, in this case in a small Korean city. The mother, Do-joon, and the victim, a teenage girl known for her sexual activities, are marginal characters. Were it not for the murder, these are would be people given the least regard, especially compared to the policemen, lawyers, academics and politicians that manipulate the community.

Mother does her own kind of manipulation where possible. When Do-Joon is being interrogated by the police for his part in breaking the car mirror, Mother comes in with bottled drinks for the police. Mother works as an unlicensed accupunturist, a profession that can bring both real and imagined feelings of well being. Mother is propelled by her unwavering belief in Do-Joon's innocence, chipping away at evidence to the contrary.

Bong has stated that his film was influenced by Psycho. Unlike other films that have resorted to shrieking violins and progressively shocking scenes of murder, Bong is more interested in the mother-son relationship. There is one graphic murder that takes place onscreen. What Mother shares with Hitchcock's film is the sense of isolation, of the mother and son alone against a mostly indifferent world. In Psycho, that isolation takes on a more obvious physical form with the Bates Motel and family home away from the main thoroughfares. Norman Bates mentions that a boy's best friend is his mother. In Mother, the two main characters are marginalized, Mother, without a husband, eking out a living with her accupunture, and Do-Joon characterized by his stunted intellectual capacity. Mother and son sleep in the same bed. There is a shot of Do-Joon putting a hand on Mother's clothed breast, a scene that Bong explains in an interview as being a normal form of affection shown by children towards their mother. Within this context, one has to understand Do-Joon's relationship to his mother as being pre-sexual, unlike Psycho which was in part about sexual jealousy.

Due to inconsistency of basic film scholarship is the casting of Kim Hye-ja in the title role. Bong has spoken about her iconic presence in interviews. Not that not knowing about Kim or her career gets in the way of appreciating Mother, but it certainly adds to the significance of this actress in this particular role. That a beloved Korean actress plays a title role that goes against her previous screen image indirectly recalls when Alfred Hitchcock took a very popular Hollywood actress and killed her off in the middle of the movie.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 5, 2010 12:16 AM