Two of Joon-ho Bong's films previous to Mother, 2003's Memories of Murder and 2006's The Host, impressed me greatly, and Memories of Murder is certainly among my favorite films of this century (that sounds so much more impressive than "this decade"!). Mother didn't get me in the gut the way Memories did, but it's certainly an excellent film: compelling, thought-provoking, and visually rich.
While the reviews of Mother were generally positive, many extremely so, I'm in the mood to dig into a negative one. I like reading Richard Brody at the New Yorker's Front Row blog because he's intelligent and experienced, and sometimes he posts wonderful stuff (e.g. on Truffaut), but our tastes and temperaments seem awfully different, so when he goes into reviewer-mode I'm wary, at least of his evaluations. Mother, he said,
...leaves me both baffled and fascinated. On the one hand, the movie—in which an odd, rather feeble twenty-seven-year-old man is accused of murdering a young woman, and his absurdly overprotective mother undertakes a bold investigation to clear his name—has all the emotional depth and psychological insight of a marionette show. The intricate and twisty story flattens the characters, pulls the utterly typecast actors’ strings, and leaves them no margin for existence. But, on the other hand, the details that keep the story going convey a sense of the interesting things that Bong is getting at—such as the indifference of the police, the lack of a right to representation and the prohibitive cost of an attorney, the absence of due process and legal redress, and the unchecked violence and silenced memories of brutality that run like a silent current of agony beneath the placid formalities of Korean culture.Such a description of the film astounds me -- the "interesting things Bong is getting at" (which should perhaps be called "the only things Richard Brody apparently noticed in the movie") are all socio-political messages. Brody then goes on to call the film a "needlessly slow-paced, overly methodical, impersonal, even mechanical bore to sit through", and then to talk about ideas/messages in recent movies, and he ends with this paragraph:
Some filmmakers want to be serious men and women and avoid being perceived as mere entertainers. That’s an old story; message movies have always seemed of outsized critical significance. What has changed is the now commonplace recognition, imparted in media studies and even in high-school English classes, that there’s no such thing as neutral storytelling, and that every artistic composition, every visual representation, entails and embodies a wealth of ideological influences and prejudices—which makes filmmakers want to stake out their positions clearly. But the most worthwhile of recent movies reflect the tension of a rich range of ideologically ambiguous or indeterminate events—even when they’re movies of overt political commitment, the scripts don’t line things up too consistently, and the director’s eye shows more, and sees further, than what the director wants to say. Or else, raising the stakes of direct address, the filmmaker comes out from behind the curtain and adds him- or herself to the film, one way or another, as an artificer within the spectacle. In short, the notion of directing in the modern cinema has changed; the new freedoms of which directors partake are actually the old freedoms, reflected in the mirror of self-consciousness and exhibited in a self-aware display of style.There's too much in that paragraph for me to unpack it all here and show what seems to me incoherent in it (or my misreading of it) -- what I want to propose, though, is that Brody's narrow reading of the film, his apparent insensitivity to any elements beyond those he perceives as satirical or somehow didactic, blinds him to this film's claims upon the terrain he seems to be saying is most worthwhile.
What Brody seems to miss is that Mother is a motion picture. Every positive review I read mentions the extraordinary visual power the movie has -- a power achieved through, I suspect, the combined efforts of Bong, cinematographer Kyung-Pyo Hong, and production designer Seong-hie Ryu. In addition, the motion part of the picture is important, and part of that is the motion of montage, for which we should note editor Sae-kyoung Moon. Beyond its visual power, though, Mother has visual meaning.
Manohla Dargis, one of the most perceptive reviewers out there, gets it -- here's how she describes an early scene in the film:
...while playing with a dog one bright day, Do-joon puts himself in the path of an oncoming BMW, which leaves him dazed if not particularly more addled.And that's not all -- Dargis leaves out how the editing of the scene manipulates our expectations: I turned away at the crucial moment because I was sure Do-joon's mother was about to chop her finger off; I thought that was what the scene would be about. Not quite. She injures her finger, but not terribly.
You watch the accident unfold alongside Mother, who busily chops herbs with a big blade in her darkened shop while casting worried glances at Do-joon as he goofs off across the street. From her vantage point, he looks as centered within the shop’s front door as a little prince inside a framed portrait. The dim interior and bright exterior only accentuate his body — the daylight functions as a kind of floodlight — which puts into visual terms the idea that he is the only thing that Mother really sees. Mr. Bong may like narrative detours, stories filled with more wrong turns than a maze, but he’s a born filmmaker whose images — the spilled water that foreshadows spilled blood — tell more than you might initially grasp.
Again and again throughout the film, similar things happen -- characters jump to conclusions and act on imprecise and even fantasized knowledge, and our expectations as viewers are also set up in particular ways and shown to be inadequate. As with The Host and Memories of Murder, part of what Bong is doing is showing us the expectations genres create for us, and how those expectations can be not only limiting, but distorting. We know what's supposed to happen in a movie like this; Bong's films use such knowledge against itself. The limitations and distortions created by genre expectations are then linked to the limitations and distortions created by other sorts of expectations we impose on the world.
But this isn't presented as a "message" in the way Brody says -- yes, there's a certain thematic element to it all, but it's more supple than a statement, more ambiguous than a speech. Ambiguity and ambivalence are at the heart of Mother, much as they were at the heart of Memories of Murder, though not to the same degree or purpose, it doesn't seem to me. (The ambiguity and ambivalence are more personal here, less epic.) "What do I know?" the film seems to want us to ask, and, "What do they know?" and maybe even, "What does anybody know?"
Richard Brody's perception of the film as slow and boring is also bizarre to me; maybe he'd taken some sleeping pills before watching it. (While it doesn't have the suspense of an action thriller, it's hardly a Hou Hsiao-hsien movie!) Brody's blindness is clear in such comments, too, because the excitement of the film is visual. And not just in the beauty of its mise-en-scene and compositions (which sometimes reminded me of the beauty Kiyoshi Kurosawa finds in worn, weathered, and grimy locations), but in the actual movement within shots and from shot to shot.
For instance here are screen captures* of some shots from the start of one sequence:
The mother here walks next to the river while the camera dollies along with her. The camera stops when the bridge comes into view, she walks out of the frame, and next appears on the bridge, heading toward the little house. The change from moving camera to static camera, from close-up to long shot, all in one take, is, if you're sensitive to that sort of thing, thrilling. And it's a pattern Bong and his collaborators use throughout the movie. Here are some stills from the other side of that sequence:
As the mother moves -- she's leaving the house hastily, thinking she has the exact evidence she needs to prove the innocence of her son -- we pull back and back, getting a sense of distance, then slam into close-ups: the golf club, the mother's face; then distance again, then movement in long shot. This conveys a sense of the energy and urgency she feels, and it also, perhaps, subtly prods us to remember to keep some perspective: things look very different up close than far away. (But which perspective is the right one? That's the hard part!)
This is not "needlessly slow-paced, overly methodical, impersonal, even mechanical", nor does it have "all the emotional depth and psychological insight of a marionette show", nor are the characters flattened, with "no margin for existence". The emotional and character depth are conveyed visually -- to experience the power of this film, we must see it. This isn't an Arthur Miller play with all the characters spewing their motivations right and left; "psychological insight" conceived as the stuff that gives Method actors something to do is an awfully narrow, impoverished criterion to apply to a film like Mother, which never attempts to explain its characters to us, but rather leaves intriguing clues. At the same time, it's a movie all about the perils of clues, the difficulties of differentiating clues from other data.
Patterns create meaning. Some of Mother's visual patterns are created through the repetition of certain types of shots (following beside the mother proves an important one). The opening and closing scenes of the film rhyme with each other in important ways. Darkness and light are hugely important (what can be seen?). And for a film that is partially about memory, the editing is masterful: little bits of the past keep popping up, without our knowing exactly where they fit or what they mean until later. Such intricacies do the exact opposite of flattening the characters.
This is not to say that I think Mother is perfect or beyond criticism -- for instance, much as I admire the final shot on an aesthetic level, the ending felt a little bit forced, a little bit schematic to me -- but I have highlighted Brody's comments on the film because his criticisms are of a sort I particularly dislike, a kind that ignores the motion and the picture. Much can be said beyond motion and picture, but when so much of a film's meaning and pleasure comes from what's in its frames and from those frames' relationships to each other, commentators who ignore such things are particularly galling.
*low quality, from Netflix streaming -- to see higher-quality stills from the film, check out DVD Beaver