Mother (2009)
and the cultural remasculinisation of Korea

I want to discuss a few things highlighted in Bong Joon-ho’s new film Mother and if possible draw them back to a broader dialogue on nation, national victimisation and infantilisation (as it relates to family, and maternal and paternal subjectivity). Let me briefly mention a vital Korean study by Kim Kyung Hyun (2005) The Remasculinisation of Korean Cinema. As Kim describes it, contemporary Korean cinema up until the millennium (he clarifies “1999”) invokes feelings of personal self-loathing, institutional repression and a damaging sense of shame; critically, this regime is gender-specific. For Kim, the fallen man is the subject of Korean cinema: a masochistic plaything in some narratives, an infant who stutters “ŏmŏni” (mother) incessantly in others. Kim ties these themes to several historical and cultural developments in Korean society:
1. the crises of the latter half of the twentieth century, during the era of military rule.
2. the deliberate phasing out of the “national” (in terms of traditional culture and identity) for a transnational Korea.

Police brutality, as evidenced in Im Sang-soo's melodrama The Old Garden (2007), in which a socialist activist retraces the turbulent era of the 1980s

The hunt for a kidnapper in Park Jin-pyo’s Voice Of a Murderer (2007) ends in another failure

The first category of changes include: the civil war (1950-1953); the ensuing cold war between North and South; the sensitive subject of America’s involvement in the latter’s economic rejuvenation; the assassination of dictator, Park Chung Hee in 1979; the subsequent rise to power of general Chun Doo Hwan in 1980, and the devastating Kwangju massacre that largely resulted. (Kwangju was just as repugnant and utterly deplorable as Tiananmen, and has been dramatised most effectively in Jang Sun-woo’s A Petal (Ggotip, 1996), Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy (Bakha satang, 1999), Kim Ji-hun’s May 18 (Hwaryeohan hyuga, 2007), and Im Sang-soo’s deeply moving, The Old Garden (Orae-doen jeongwon, 2007), which stars a favourite actress of mine, Yum Jung-ah). In the second development, under the globalising process that represents transnationalism, the “nation” of Korea is conceived increasingly in ways that move us beyond a consideration or critique of the nation-state to a Korean transnationality. Allied to America, its cinema closer to Hollywood, it is no longer a coherent unity, and this issue informs many of the films discussed in this post (yet, Korea has always been burdened with issues pertaining to “state” and “nation”). Within the cinema, its male characters play out or work through the effects of this new constitution, obviously a continuing process, and come to suffer personal crises that steer them either towards a life of violence or self-destructive masochism.

I find this interesting with regard to cinematic depictions of the justice system, law enforcement and police authority — institutions that remain very masculine in composition and politics to this day, but which suffer the burdens of the remasculinisation process described by Kim. Many Korean films of late underscore the fact that the police are either politically and socially ineffectual, or else straightforwardly inept on their own bureaucratic terms.

Jin Kwang-kyo’s Beautiful Sunday (2007), for one, follows a corrupt detective whose guilt and self-loathing caused by a past traumatic experience lays the foundation for a fantasy in which he ruthlessly pursues a mystery killer. Then, there is Han Jae-rim’s The Show Must Go On (Uahan segye, 2007), a touching gangster film in which the Sadang police are neither ubiquitous or necessarily an ongoing concern in the social power structure, which seems to be shared, rather, between the Dogs and the Jaguars crime families. The Chaser (Chugyeogja, 2008), a film in which the hero, a former cop-cum-pimp, crashes a police van full of cops in his pursuit of Min-ji’s kidnapper and works over a suspect on police premises, is on one or two levels a riff off Bong’s seminal Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok, 2003), of which more shortly. Thus, with the political democratisation and globalisation movements of the nineties, Korean cinema has become increasingly critical of police authority at local and state levels. The law itself is more often than not undermined by routine procedure, in some cases — Bong Joon-ho’s film Memories of Murder for one — desperately so. Lee Yeon-woo’s Running Turtle (Geobugi dallinda, 2009), while appearing to resist these dominating tendencies in its final scene (in which Jo Pil-seong’s unit put on a marching parade for the benefit of his daughter’s primary school class), must first work through a narrative that continually robs the detective, his colleagues and his bosses of professional competency. And if I remember correctly, Hwang Su-a’s lovely Why Did You Come To My House? (Woori jipyeo wae wassni, 2009) is fairly ambivalent about its investigating officers also, dependent as they are on a bittersweet monologue from Byeong-hee (Park Hie-sun) for information and ultimately clarification on an unsolved suicide.

Detective Park Du-man in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories Of Murder (2003)

Taken together, these films construct an image of law enforcement in Korea, and to an extent the larger judicial system, that is at best corrupt and draconian, at worst juvenile, masochistic and dysfunctional. Memories of Murder, however, provides a slightly different perspective. Late in the film's second act, the police, aided by a specialist forensics team, work together without contradiction; Park Du-man and Kim Sang-kyung's detective Seo Tae-yoon share for the first time characteristics of maturity and discipline and invention. I know some disagree with this reading, arguing that, on the contrary, the law is irredeemable while the fact is that the science of forensics, which surfaces quite late in the movie, remains, quite literally, unintelligible — a point I can accept. But I suggest that Bong’s film resists a totalising symbolic representation; just as the partnership between the two detectives matures throughout the movie (their approaches no longer demarcated), the department undergoes its own process of maturation, such that it becomes collaborative, and networked, and communicative. Rather than denounce them as inherently problematic or hamstrung by incompetence, Memories instead dramatises the perpetual suffering of the authorities in Gyeonggi province even as they are learning to overcome and transcend their inefficiencies. Failure is no longer structural, or interdepartmental. The disillusion of Park Du-man, dramatised so brilliantly in the denouement, signifies the law’s gradual disappearance from the corrupt urban spaces of modern Korean cinema — but only after it has established some legitimacy, only having found a sense of self in the new modernity.

Mother concerns a mentally handicapped young man, Do-joon (Won Bin), who the police charge on circumstantial evidence and coerce into signing a confession for the murder of a schoolgirl. The film traces the difficult journey of Hye-ja (Kim Hye-ja), Do-joon’s poor single mother, who seeks first to unpick the state’s case against him, then forcefully uncover the truth from the local townsfolk. A handful of objectionable authority figures impede her way, each conforming largely to type: thus we get the imprudent lawyer who just wants more money and expends his energies in a karaoke lounge fondling pricey escorts; Yoon Je-mun plays a not altogether indecent character, but his cop errs on the side of intractability in his refusal to help Hye-ja once he has jailed her son; then there is Song Sae-byeok, Yoon’s “heavy” on the force whose fascination with the game of sepak takraw (a form of kick volleyball which he brings into the interrogation room) echoes the extracurricular activities of the violent Detective Cho (Kim Roe-ha) in Memories. In addition, Mother recapitulates motifs familiar from that film: the botched crime reconstruction, in which the team responsible for staging an again very public walk-through are similarly humiliated before the nation’s press; the importance of forced confessions as the key determinant of guilt, given more credence here in the absence of an “educated” cop from the city; and there’s an amusing gag about forensics teams and their growing infantile fascination with populist television shows, like CSI. Indeed, in a film that effectively canvases the opinions of a range of unhelpful professionals in law enforcement and the legal system, in addition to those civilians who are bereaved or in mourning and therefore incapable of seeing past the “red mist,” there is no better symbol of strength, loyalty or crucially competence than the character of Jin-tae, played by Jin Goo. But, then, as Jin-tae himself comments at one point in the film, who can be trusted? And Bong sheds enough light on the key aspects of Jin-tae’s life — in one sustained sequence, Hye-ja secretively watches him having sex with his under-age girlfriend — to remind us that good and evil are not mutually exclusive.

Kim Hye-ja, in a field of long grass, before she begins the enigmatic dance which opens
Bong Joon-ho's Mother

Mother fits well, therefore, into existing discussions on Korean gender empowerment and cultural remasculinisation. On the one hand we have Jin-tae, in many respects a model anti-hero proud of his identity and (despite recent developments) military heritage, while on the other we have self-important figures within the bourgeois sphere, people like Hye-ja’s boastful attorney, the Mercedes Benz-driving golfers who view people of lower class stature (including the police themselves) with contempt, and most alarmingly, we have the brace of desperate, middle-aged men who exploited the disillusioned schoolgirl, Ah-jung (Moon Hee-ra), for sexual favours throughout most of her teenage life. The film not only holds that the remasculinisation of Korea is still a going concern in thematic terms, it suggests the nation is institutionally hapless, its authority figures (predominantly male) disreputable creatures.

Fetishising that which is finally lost: emotions of youth.
Woo-jin's sister, Lee Soo-ah (Yun Jin-seo), in Park Chan-wook's Oldboy (2003)

There is one last point to make concerning memory. Mother is an intriguing portrait of one woman’s unflinching determination to prove the innocence of her only child. Importantly, Hye-ja’s actions are driven as much by psychic wounds, unhealed from the past, as by a sense of instinctive maternal duty. The film reminds me of the melancholia of Oldboy, a film which, for its part, evokes the romantic purity and innocence of the past in hopeful terms. Think of the cherished sequences recounted to Oh Dae-su by Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae) about his youth. The desire which lured Woo-jin and his sister together, while representing emotions that are taboo in the eyes of society, and therefore impure, is nonetheless affirmed as something beautiful in the film by virtue of the fact that it is a pure (i.e., authentic) emotion. The potency of this emotion finally proves devastating for Woo-jin. The intense anguish which the dissolution of their relationship causes (and guilt relating to her death) is so traumatising, even a decade later, that he can only stop the cycle of pain by taking his own life.

Both films concern the troubling effects of memory. Oldboy creates a definite linkage between Oh Dae-su’s desire to forget his past life and the libidinal impulses that have driven him unknowingly towards incest, whilst in Mother, the sins that Hye-ja tries categorically to forget are multiple, though all can be critically examined against her misplaced but unquestioned faith in her son’s innocence. Neither figure emerges from their respective crises victoriously, but crucially (and this is one of the important aspects of the films for me) both characters continue with life; they have reasons for living. In Mother, we see a startling glimpse of the carefree woman Hye-ja will become in the final scene of the film — upon performing the acupuncture that will blank her memory of events, she joins an enthusiastic band of partying travellers — but she is, finally, incoherent to us by virtue of the fact that we simply do not recognise this new character; she has lost her subjectivity, traded it; her mirrored self (in Do-joon) is therefore also, we assume, forgotten. Although there is perhaps no better option for Oh Dae-su in Oldboy — his lover, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong), would never accept his suicide — he nonetheless escapes with her in an attempt to reconstitute the self; he will live, it is suggested, because she is in desperate need of him, and he dependent on her for care; yet Mi-do is suffering more in this arrangement, because she is rejecting a “new” life absolutely liberated from Lee Woo-jin. Whatever their outcomes, these films ultimately demonstrate the potential harm of memory. In failed love, memory eats us from within. Our fondness for the past and for the intimacy we once shared feeds our self-loathing. No longer a tendency, therefore, the act of remembering becomes ingrained, entrenched ritual — masochistic and destructive. The fault, in looking back to the past, is our own.

On this note, the two films differ largely in their intended outcomes: one leaves the viewer very clear about the “success” of the memory erasure, while the other instead appears to affirm its cruel and bitter failure. In the end, the mother dances her way to the front of the coach (and hence onward to a new life, bathed in the regenerative warmth and hues of sunshine), while the monster is forgotten on a cavernous mountain, doomed we suspect to a sour, ugly future with a mirrored version of his self in Mi-do. But above all, he is doomed to a life ensconced in the disappointments and evils of memory. That Mother concludes on a comparatively upbeat note does nothing to undercut the tragic sense of loss that has occurred — the loss of her child, and the loss of an existence defined solely by her child.


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