Mother is available to stream on Hulu and Tubi.
TW: This film contains references to sexual assault and some violent content. Viewer discretion is advised, though I highly recommend you watch it since it never feels remotely exploitative.
A mother will do anything for her child, so the saying goes. A mother might even go the length of becoming an amateur sleuth to clear her child’s name after he’s accused of murder. Of course, this is a film by the great Bong Joon-ho, best known as the creator of the scathing satire Parasite, which swept the Oscars even as those who awarded it seemed to not understand that they were the butt of the joke. Director Bong, as his growing fanbase affectionately refers to him, never misses an opportunity to take familiar genre trappings and then distort the hell out of them till another truth is quietly revealed amidst his trademark mix of dark humor and social commentary. His films largely work because they want to explore deeply personal themes even as they’re willing to make a joke out of themselves at times. They are films made with as much vulnerability as any filmmaker has been able to offer, and so Bong makes the titular Mother both nothing and everything like how we as a society portray the figure of a mother.
The setup, as most Bong films initially are, is deceptively simplistic: an herbalist and acupuncturist has her son accused of murder and sets out to clear his name no matter how far she has to go to do so. Mother strikes a strange character, complete with an acupuncture treatment she brags about that can selectively remove memories. She’s introduced dancing erratically in a flowing field with no explanation as to why, and she largely leaves her son, Yoon Do-joon, off to his own devices with his asshole friends. What begins as a series of mean-spirited pranks suddenly ends with Yoon in prison and Mother being vilified by the entire town. Clearing Yoon’s name won’t just clear his reputation, but her own as well.
Of course, as with all good neo-noir stories, Mother and Mother are not about to see an open-and-shut case, and Bong knows the beats of a neo-noir film left and right and gleefully plays against and towards expectations whenever it suits him. Mother’s self-imposed maternal instinct thus becomes how she’s able to get information from the expansive cast of characters surrounding this case, whether or not she’s interested in being that to anyone doesn’t seem up to her. She’s not just a kindly old woman, she’s not just defined by one attribute, and the more Yoon refuses to cooperate, the more we learn about their dynamic and how it’s not exactly the healthiest to begin with, that’s when Bong begins to ask really difficult questions of his audience through how the two of them react to each other. The relationship between Mother and Yoon is as alternatively antagonistic as it is loving. Theirs is not a relationship easily defined, and the more we learn about one, the more we learn about why the other makes the choices they do.
I don’t want to say too much more since this is really a devastating journey that needs to be taken in its own right. Bong makes this his most deeply claustrophobic work yet. faces framed in oppressive telephoto lens that make you feel like you’re being shaken by the neck.
Something this brought to mind, as I kept on watching and the neat confined boundaries of both their lives came apart at the seams, is how often parents defend their child even when they don’t necessarily deserve to be defended in the first place. Both of their roles in these events is very messy so to speak. To use possibly the mildest case of this I can think of, there was that scandal last year when it was revealed that the influencer Olivia Jade had her parents bribe people into giving her good test scores so she could go to whatever college she wanted. Her parents being Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, this was instantly handed to her, and a bunch of other kids of former celebrities had gotten in on the action as well. It didn’t matter that this was screwing over people who need an education to have a better quality of life (that’s, of course, not actually true in America, but even so), this was done anyway, because it was their child, and any child they didn’t know could burn, as far as they were concerned. The question of this nature is raised, why parents defend their children even when it’s not necessarily certain. To Mother’s credit, the police clearly target her son to be able to finish the case incredibly quickly and he doesn’t seem to have any motive to do so, and didn’t even know the victim. Bong does not hide for one second how deeply corrupt the police are in South Korea (ACAB, naturally), and how none of this resembles a fair trial. She doesn’t have no reason to defend her son, and it’s natural for her to want him to be innocent. But his involvement is different than how everyone imagined it.
The answers to all those questions are found within that narrative, with a Mother playing at being detective, with lives in the balance, secrets to be spilled, and reputations on the line. It’s thrilling stuff, alternating between darkly humorous and deeply melancholy depending on the moment. It’s not an easy watch, but it feels like a necessary one. I ended the film deeply conflicted, thinking about the cultures of masculine entitlement Mother immerses herself in as she pursues her truth, whatever that might end up looking like. Little innocuous details that will be missed if you blink come into full play later on. It forms a tapestry of lives and experiences that feels lived in and real. You don’t necessarily like these people, but they do feel like people, worn down and desperate, driven to action the only way they know how.
This is not a way to live, the film and Bong almost suggests out loud.