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Korean Movies You Should Watch Before You Die #4

January 31, 2010

This is a guest post by Nick Mann

Mother

Could this be the year Korea wins the academy award for Best Foreign Picture?

With official submissions from each country already announced and less than a month until the short-listed candidates are revealed, the timing seems perfect to pose the question.

The Korean film vying against ninety-odd films for the pinnacle of international (read: American) recognition for the year 2010 is a taut little suspense/thriller called Mother* (2009), directed and co-written by Bong Jun-ho.  Bong has already proven himself in his homeland as a filmmaker that can reach mass audiences and critics alike.  His 2006 release The Host (Gwoemul – more accurately translated as “Monster”) is the top grossing Korean movie of all time.  Bong is also responsible for Memories of Murder, (Sal-in-ui Chu-eok, 2003)  one of the finest examples of Korean cinema to date, which I can assure you will be discussed in a future article on this site.

So could this be the year Korean film takes the Oscars by storm?

Mother is very much worth watching, but it is by no means Oscar material.  For one thing it is from the wrong country.  Frankly, the foreign picture goes to one of about five or six countries (France, Japan, Sweden, Italy, Germany, Spain) at least 50 percent of the time and for a film outside of the Academy’s comfort zone to even get nominated it has to be a) exceptional b) “Important” c) somehow familiar or accessible.  Mother isn’t really any of these things.  It’s just an expertly crafted, thoroughly enjoyable film.

The basic plot is a murder mystery in rural Korea, and in that respect it borrows rather heavily from Bong’s previous success, Memories of Murder.  However the director never stoops to caricaturing his own style and there is no reason he shouldn’t revisit a setting that served him so well in the past.  That being said, scenes in rice fields, portrayals of countryside lawmen, even the half-witted suspect in Mother may seem slightly familiar to anyone who has watched Memories.

A more unexpected source that appears to have influenced Bong’s approach this time around is the films of Alfred Hitchcock.  Given the subject matter, it’s not much of a stretch.  The main character of the film is a doting mother who does everything in her power to prove her son innocent when circumstantial evidence points to him as the prime suspect in a murder case.  The deeper she digs the more dark secrets she uncovers in her sleepy small town, yet she must continue following the threads until she can get her hands on hard evidence.

The innocent man accused of a crime he didn’t commit could be related to countless Hitchcock films, but Bong seems to zero in on one particular film in the Hitchcock canon, and to significantly different effect.  The film that I see alluded to most specifically is Psycho, and this succeeds in emphasizing the unusual, even unsettling bond between mother and son in this film.  The clearest reference to Psycho comes in a scene when ‘mother’ hides in her son’s friend’s bedroom closet.  She has snuck in to search for clues, but has to hide when the man returns unexpectedly.  From her vantage point in the closet she then becomes privy to a wee sex scene.  The voyeurism here unmistakably recalls Norman Bates peaking through the hole in the wall of his office, complete with an extreme close-up of a single eye in profile.

The Hitchcockian touches may resonate more strongly with international audiences than in domestic theatres; however the central character in this film is based on a very familiar character in Korean society, which some foreign viewers may not recognize. It’s the story of an “ajumma”. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term I’ve included a colourful definition, slightly abridged, from a book called How Koreans Talk: A Collection of Expressions by Sang-Hun Choe and Christopher Torichia.)

A married woman. Often a restaurant worker, street vendor, or middle-aged housewife… (the) stereotypical image: a loud, bustling woman in mismatched clothing. Most Koreans admire the ajumma’s hard work and aggressiveness.  Market ajummas wear baggy pants, little makeup and towels wrapped around their heads.  They are raucous and cuss rude men.  Most ajumma come from poor backgrounds, but they are eager to educate their children… Some push and shove their way through a crowd to find a seat on the bus or subway.  Such behaviour led some social commentators to dub ajumma ‘a third sex,’ neither man nor woman.”

Perhaps people who have never had the pleasure of interacting with the stereotypical ajumma firsthand will miss out on some of Bong’s ironic at times darkly humorous touches.  But more generally this is a twisted look at the universal cliché of a mother who will do anything for her child, a theme that definitely transcends cultures.  Yet, familiar as this persona may seem, it is seldom that characters at this stage of life are the focal point of a film – in Korea or any other country.  For making such an engaging movie which focuses on a demographic whose struggles rarely seem to capture the imagination of mass audiences I believe Bong deserves added credit.

Beyond a stimulating plot and some nuances which will appeal to the most attentive viewers, this film features some virtuoso acting performances, an excellent soundtrack and some unexpected twists and turns. It has its opaque, artsy moments** but if one thing makes certain Mother won’t win an Oscar it is that it’s far too much fun to watch.

Will Bong and his film be recognized at the Academy Awards in 2010?  Not likely, but neither was City of God, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Battle Royale, Shoot the Piano Player, Ashes and Diamonds, etc… so it’s in good company.

*    Korean title is the same, pronounced “Ma-duh”.  It’s spelled Ma-deo according to current Anglicization of the Korean alphabet.

**  The most obvious example of an ‘opaque, artsy moment’ being the opening scene of the film where the mother dances in a field as if in a trance, even momentarily looking into the camera and breaking through the imaginary ‘fourth wall’.  The film after that becomes much more conventional.

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