The title character of Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s new thriller, Mother, is a sexagenarian woman (Hye-Ja Kim) living in a rural town who refuses to accept that her adult son has been charged with murder.
Her increasingly frantic attempts to clear his name — in spite of mounting evidence connecting him to the killing — form the spine of one of the most accomplished and audacious films of the year.
“(Her character) is, in a way, quite typical of mothers in Korea,” explains Bong, who conceived the story after the smash success of his 2006 monster movie, The Host.
“There are a lot of things that mothers can do that the country or the society at large cannot. That was actually the reason that I omitted any sort of mother character from The Host — if there had been a maternal figure there, the family would not have coped with the situation so poorly. They would have behaved better.”
This is not to say that Bong’s protagonist is a poster girl for maternity. It’s clear that her son (Won Bin) was damaged at some point in his childhood; there are aspects of his character that suggest mental illness, reminiscent of the hero of The Host.
Bong denies the connection, however. “I’m not particularly interested in people with mental illness,” he says. “I would say that I am more interested in the less privileged members of a society. In The Host, [these people] help each other and work together — in Mother, it is the opposite. They hurt each other. That is the different and dark side of this movie.”
What does link Mother to Bong’s earlier films (including also 2003’s excellent Memories of Murder) is the director’s remarkable formal control: every colour has been carefully chosen for symbolic heft.
“I wanted to clearly separate the mother from all the other elements of the movie,” says Bong.
“So you see her red and violet clothes standing out against the desaturated blue tone. That’s the son’s colour — an obscure sky blue. It’s a way to show that we don’t really know him — even his own mother doesn’t know him. I was trying for a feeling of ambiguity.”