Originally part of MKC's Revenge Week (July 8-14, 2013), this article is reposted in light of its new B&W print being screened at the 19th Busan International Film Festival. Though the new version is not discussed here, I can say that one of my favorite Korean films is now even better!
Outside of a few clear candidates, pinpointing revenge films isn’t quite as easy as it seems. Case in point is Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (2009). When I first considered it, I hesitated, but after watching it again this past weekend, it became clear that this is a film teeming with revenge, yet not for the reasons that I had at first considered.
Concerning the broadstrokes of Mother’s plot, the first thing that comes to mind as vengeful (and this would be a good time to turn away if you haven’t seen it), is the mother’s violent actions as she tries to protect her son from landing in jail. As much as her crimes are similar to the maternal vengeance that crops up time and again in Korean cinema, coloring such seminal contemporary works as Lady Vengeance (2005) and Bedevilled (2010), her motives are not overtly vengeful, she is merely being protective.
So why is Mother a revenge film? In this case, the devil is in the details, as revenge elements pepper the entire film and irrevocably set everything in motion, yet they are relatively small. A seemingly innocuous action can have a significant consequence, but more than anything, the outcome of Mother seems a condemnation of a way of thinking (very prevalent in Korea) that appears justified to those who ascribe to it, yet whose selfishness affects everyone.
Revenge starts early in Mother. After being hit by a black Mercedes which promptly speeds off, Do-joon (played by Won Bin) and his friend (Jin Goo) chase after it until they reach a local golf course where the friend explains to the mentally-impaired Do-joon that they have come to seek revenge. While he says this, Do-joon plays in a fake lake scooping out wayward golf balls. He dances, hopping from foot to foot while benignly uttering the word ‘revenge’. The act of retribution is an abstract concept for him, thus it becomes merely a game. Furthermore, his behavior is not dissimilar to the well to-do professors who ran him over with their fancy car in the first place and were quite happy to leave the scene of the crime. They didn’t do so just to escape, they did it to get to the course and enjoy their round of golf. How quickly things can be forgotten.
The central act of vengeance in Mother is the murder, the focal point of the story. We only discover at the end that Do-joon was indeed the perpetrator of the crime, though its motive was minor, its commission spontaneous and its impact undesired. Do-joon, drunk after a few too many drinks and clumsily seeking a woman’s company (he’s later described as a ‘dog-in-heat’ by the bar hostess), follows a high school girl and calls after her to have a drink with him. She darts into a decrepit building and hurls a big stone towards him. Frightened, he turns to leave but she then asks him if he knows her. She goes on to say she hates men and then calls him a babo (a word which can be interpreted as either idiot or retard). Finished she turns around but now Do-joon picks up the rock and throws it back at her, striking her dead.
Do-joon is insulted by the word babo, and his crime is foreshadowed throughout the film as he always goes after anyone who calls him such, though these earlier instances are stealthily concealed as instances of comic relief. However, this time, with a large stone at hand, just one blow is fatal. Earlier in the film, influenced by the virile Ji-tae, he decides he needs to sleep with a woman, even though it’s not quite clear he understands what that entails. This is the night during which he gets drunk and launches a small boulder at a girl’s head. Perhaps his retribution is more serious this time as the girl calls his masculinity into question, though this happens following what is just a misunderstanding, stemming from the girl’s personal trauma and insecurity.
What causes Do-joon to act this way whenever he is slighted? While it can be natural for people to lash when they come under fire, Do-joon’s actions feel automatic and not necessarily stemming from some deep-rooted insecurity. As it transpires, Do-joon is simply carrying out his mother’s orders. Though suffocatingly protective of her son (to the point where they sleep in the same bed, despite his being a grown man), she can’t always be around to help him. His mental deficiencies make him more prone to danger than most. In order for him to protect himself, she gives him orders: “If they insult you, hit them. If they hit you, hit them twice.”
Similarly, Do-joon is influenced by his friend, played by Jin Goo, a physical character who quickly turns to violence and at numerous points in the film refers to vengeance. He does so in the opening sequence but also later on when he extorts money from Do-joon’s mother. He tells her that there are only three motives for murder: “Money, passion and vengeance.”
Taking all this context into account, the unfortunate murder at the heart of the film seems inevitable as well as completely senseless. Do-joon has grown up in a culture of violence and while he is not completely aware of the motivations behind his actions nor their consequences, his whole life is marked by revenge.
As in other films by Bong, particularly his masterpiece Memories of Murder (2003), trauma and memory play a significant role in the narrative. Do-joon has trouble remembering things. Given his condition this may not be surprising. However, following the revelation that his mother attempted to poison and kill them both when he was young, his amnesia starts to look like a case of repressed memories. This carries through to the central murder, as he doesn’t seem to remember committing it.
His mother doesn’t have the same luxury of being able forget her past. She is nervy and skittish, likely stemming from her harsh life. She also has to live with her attempted murder-suicide. However, when she willfully murders and commits arson to protect her son, an action that only become necessary because of his guilt, she seems to have gone a step too far. She can no longer bare all this pain.
The film ends with her on a tour bus for middle-aged ladies. The ajhummas dance in the isle while she sits and stares out the window, shell-shocked. She then takes out her acupuncture kit and performs a procedure that we must assume is the one that can wipe painful memories away, as she referred to earlier in the film. She gets up and joins the other women and proceeds to lose herself to dance. The last image of the film is a shot which is zoomed in from a long distance. The sun is setting behind the bus and all we can see are the silhouettes of the dancing woman as the camera jerks around, unable to focus on the shadowy figures. Do-joon’s mother is now lost in the throng, her will to forget triumphant.
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