Tired of too-sweet films about mothers that dominate the silver screen? This Mother's Day, celebrate the gritty side of motherhood with a film that flips the usual tropes on their heads.
Ah, Mother's Day. A holiday full of Hallmark card cliches and obligatory praise that no woman can live up to. But don't worry—this year, we've got just the cure. If you find yourself pacing the kitchen at 4pm this Mother's Day, one hand holding a bottle of Pinot Noir and the other crumpling a hand-made card that's having the opposite effect than it intended, do yourself a favor and cue up Bong Joon-ho's "Mother", a movie that skips the usual toothache-inducing treacle to tell a story about family allegiances that is anything but simple and sweet.
*****Spoilers for "Mother" below!*****
A Mother's (Toxic) Love
The critically-acclaimed 2009 film from the highly-decorated director of "Parasite" starts out with a recognizable trope—a mother who will do anything to prove her son's innocence—before swerving into darker, unexpected territory. An unnamed widow (Kim Hye-Ja) living in a small South Korean town works hard to protect her intellectually disabled son, Do-joon (played by Won Bin) whose innocence and unreliable memory have already made him an easy mark for local thugs. But when a local girl is found murdered on the roof of an abandoned building and Do-joon is accused of the crime, his mother has to step up her game, fighting a one-woman battle against the townspeople, cops, and lawyers to prove what she knows is true: that her son is innocent.
She visits her son in jail, again and again, trying to help him remember what happened that night, and offering him acupuncture to relieve his emotional distress. She even hires an expensive lawyer, but when he turns out to be a self-involved bust, our protagonist fires him and takes matters into her own hands, breaking into the home of a town heavy to uncover what she believes to be damning evidence against him. When the evidence amounts to nothing, she ropes in a heavy in a plan to interrogate (read: beat up) men in town until they give her more information on who the real killer might be.
The Not-So-Soft Side of Motherhood
At this point, the movie is not exactly painting motherhood in the warmest light—but it is telling a story we can understand. Sure, Do-joon's mother might be guilty of breaking and entering, lying to town drunks, and roughing up the occasional teenager, but whatever her dalliances into ethical grey areas might be, her aim is true. Like any mother, she believes her son is innocent. And, like any mother, she will do whatever it takes to prove it and spare him a gruesome fate. It might not be the approach to motherhood you'd find extolled in the Hallmark aisle, but it is comprehensible. This is loyalty in extremis—something we can understand. Some people might end up with black eyes or stolen property, but the ends justify the means.
Bong could have stopped at this impasse and still delivered a rich movie with a complicated mother-son duo trapped in a messy, but loving, relationship. Instead, he ups the ante, pushing Doon-jo's mother into more extreme situations to see how far, exactly, her love will go.
Up until this moment in the film, the mother's mission has been driven—and justified—by her belief in her son's innocence and her certainty that she is his best protector. But soon, both stories start to fall apart. While trying to remember details of the night of the murder, Doon-jo uncovers an even more sinister memory that he has repressed all his life: When he was five, his mother tried to poison him and herself to release them both from a world of constant suffering. The mother swears to Doon-jo that she did it out of love for him—to protect him from the worst in other people—but Doon-jo rejects that argument, telling her he never wants to see her again.
Determined to try even harder to get her son out of prison, the mother seeks out a local junk collector she believes to be the murderer. But when the junk collector tells her that he saw Doon-jo commit the murder, the mother must make a choice between justice and loyalty—to fight for the truth or to save her son at the expense of others. In a climactic and harrowing scene, she chooses the latter, setting in motion a cascade of violence, murder, and lies that ultimately frame another vulnerable, disabled man for the crimes her son committed. In both instances—her attempt to poison her son and to bury the truth about his guilt—the mother does to others what she most fears others will do to her son, using their loneliness, trust, and gullibility against them.
It's this tragic quality to the film that makes it so perfect: The characters create injustice in their attempts to find justice; danger in their attempts to create safety; and deep divides in their attempts to keep others close. It's also what makes it a great Mother's Day 2021 movie escape. It shows that great love doesn't always make us great people; that sometimes we are the worst in the name of people we love the best; and that motherhood is not a field of daisies or a gig for the perfect. It's the domain of tangled hearts, expectations, histories, and allegiances, of fierce love colliding with impossible circumstances and conflicting obligations. And it's a film that allows motherhood to be as complicated as it is. And if nothing else, it pairs well with a bottle of Pinot and a vague sense of not measuring up to impossible expectations.