Mother or Madeo or 마더 (2009)
It’s always interesting to watch yourself as you watch a film. So often your mind takes off in unexpected directions as what you see and hear triggers associations. In Mother or Madeo or 마더 (2009), I found myself compiling a list of stories about mothers and wondering where I was going to place this latest contribution. It’s rather like watching the latest sad alien invasion of Earth film and wondering whether anything will ever replace the excitement of seeing Earth vs the Flying Saucers when it first came out in 1956. There are times when the excitement you felt as a young man puts everything else into the shade. So, among the “mother” films, we might think of Forrest Gump where Sally Fields will do anything to ensure her boy gets ahead in life, or would you rather have Diane Wiest as mother to Edward Scissorhands? Perhaps my all-time favourite is the completely obscure Gorgo in which a mother monster is distinctly displeased when humans accidentally capture her baby and put him on display in London. She and her babe finally leave smoking ruins behind them as they wander back into the sea. But, being serious, the real favourite has always been The Causasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht based on a Chinese play by Li Xingdao in which the love of a “real” and adoptive mother are tested. True love triumphs in this remarkably unsentimental piece of theatre.
So, in 2009, Korean director Joon-ho Bong advanced from The Host, writing and directing Mother. Although conventional wisdom would have us say the main protagonist is the Mother, played with magical intensity by Hye-ja Kim, the main character is actually the small Korean town in which these sad events take place.
Imagine a town on the verge of becoming a small city, nestling in the countryside and deceiving itself into believing it’s somehow civilised. The streets are still roughly paved with slightly vertiginous side alleys, some neighbourhoods are in need of renovation while professionals drive their Mercedes through the streets like Kings and Queens, enjoying the local golf course and sending their children to the modern school. There’s a police force, of course. There must always be someone tasked with keeping order. But they are overworked and underpaid. They must defer to the new privileged middle classes while being uncomfortably aware of their roots in the now oppressed local community. There are lawyers whose role it is to defend the innocent except they’re as corrupt as the police and, if there’s insufficient money to interest them, they throw their clients to the wolves.
And at the bottom of the heap in towns like this are the older poor. Except, even they may be rescued from the real bottom by the intellectually disabled. Somehow, no matter where the community, there must always be the misunderstood and often feared people whose brains are not quite wired in the same way as everyone else. Without a public defender, their lives are usually brutally short. But some young men like Yoon Do-Joon, cleverly underplayed by Won Bin, are lucky. They have mothers to look after them.
The day starts badly for Yoon Do-Joon. He’s knocked down by a Mercedes on the way to the golf course. He picks himself up and, with a friend to keep reminding him why they are on the golf course, they confront the driver and passengers. The result sees everyone in the local police station. The disinterested police watch the arrival of the Mother warily and shortly after her arrival send everyone away. Mother and son are well-known quantities in a small town that would be a city. Feeling angry, the son drinks heavily in a local bar and walks off into the night to find his way home. On the way, he sees a girl and follows. But when a stone is thrown. . . Well, let’s leave it with a shot of him walking away. In the morning a young girl is found dead. Near the body is a golf ball that Yoon Do-Joon had picked up and written his name on while he was in the police station. This is all the evidence the police need to charge him with murder.
At first the Mother tries to go through the system, using savings accumulated over the years to pay a lawyer. But it’s soon obvious that no-one’s going to save her son unless she finds the killer herself. It would not be fair to discuss how well the investigation proceeds. Suffice it to say, it soon becomes obvious the victim had multiple enemies, any one of whom might have killed her. There’s always a seamy side to every small town with some young girls prepared to offer favours to the young adults and men around her. All I can say is that it all becomes clear how and why the girl died. Even more importantly, the town stays true to itself and, when evidence of the right quality presents itself, there’s only one possible answer.
Mother or Madeo or 마더 is a completely absorbing study of small-town politics, showing how a Mother balances love and guilt, right and wrong in trying to protect her disabled son from a police force that would accept the first piece of evidence as conclusive and lock him away rather than actually investigate. Rather in the same way that Brecht frames a story about the power of a mother’s love in a dispute between two Russian communes as WWII is coming to an end, so Joon-ho Bong frames his story in a dark town and its surrounding forrested landscape where the retard will always be first one blamed. In the final circle, the Mother holds one hand and the police the other while we watch knowing what has happened. It’s a sobering moment, forcing us to ask and answer the question of what would happen if there was no mother to step in to rescue her son. Mother or Madeo is now second in my all-time favourite list of Mother stories. Perhaps nothing will ever beat Brecht but this came very close. Make every effort to watch this. It’s worth every minute of your time.