Mother (Madeo)Joon-ho Bong (S Korea 2009) Hye-ja Kim; Bin Won.
Viewed Tyneside Film Theatre 24 Aug 2010 Ticker price £7.50
Proximities: in this situation you dance
As the film opened I wondered what was going on?The opening shot of Mother (M) reveals a pastoral landscape, a meadow perhaps in a valley.The sound track fades up; we hear sparse modern slightly Spanish but hard to place, guitar music.The camera pans and frames a woman (the mother) who heaves into view and starts to dance in front of the camera.She is composed intent on her dance which she contains within herself.By the end of the movie I understood the reason for the dance of the mother.
Bong (B) has made a Korean film that is set in and addresses itself to a world that is Korea.Film is an example of a Western industrial art, and increasingly worldwide filmmakers seem intent on replicating its dominant Hollywood form.In M, B has made of this art his own statement. Conceptually ideologically it owes nothing in ethos or content to Hollywood;as a filmic form it is a technically advanced and expressive product.
Superficially M is charaterised by a narrative that tells of the obsessive actions and behaviour of the mother who believes in the innocence of her son. Her boy has learning disabilities and is charged with the grotesque murder of a schoolgirl.The narrative although working as the engine driving the action of M, seems to me a cover behind which B secretes his central purpose in making the film.The defining objective of M is to reveal and to make visible the psychic and historical layering that comprises the reality of Korean society.
Seen through B’s direction the audience is alerted to some of the forces that shape this society.Through the incessant downpour of rain, through the person of the mother and her world,her needles the herbs, we glimpse the reality that Korea is a country that has been ripped out of its peasant condition oflabouring the land and whipped by the forces of global markets into the world of consumption.A people who have been driven from the depths of the countryside into the congested high density living conditions ofthe megalopolis.Korea’s History; what do we in the West know or care about it?It’s just a place where they assemble stuff.Korea’s history is other people’s history whichwe in the West would rather forget or pass over in indifference and ignorance.ButKorea’s history is imprinted on memory as people made the transition from forest to shopping mall, from brutalised impoverished peasanthood to indebted consumer.B uses his film to wield a scalpel of ideas.Taking the persona of the mother, he peels back the layers of Korea to expose a society that in the grain of its flesh is ‘other’.In M we experience at one level a society whose image is grounded in the modernist urban agenda; through the mother we experience another country attached still to an older quasi mythic magical rural order.Through B’s eyeKorean society is seen as an assemblage of schizo connections and relations.
M is a film which makes radical and economic use of the possibilities that film possesses to contract space and time, creating radical proximities. Places that are far apart divided by space are given a contiguous adjacent relationship.As in Kafka’s the Trial only thin partitions seem to divide areas that should be far apart.In M thespaces can seem strangely contiguous;distance contracts in the movement of the mother who passes from town to countryside in a step of her foot.Her direct passage knits togather the closeness of these two worlds.
A related feature of Mother is the look of the film. B has balanced and colourised M as a blue world.Blue is the constant that links space.Blue colours and pervadesthe film,a haze, so that editing between the different scenes and locations has the effect ofreinforcing the idea ofpsychic proximity.
Through colour and passage B collapses space which of course also effects temporal perception.B also uses an editing technique in M which radically effects the audience experience of the passage of time.To heighten the audience experience of the simultaneity of time B uses a particular editing technique in which the shot that is cut to is anticipated visually in its antecedent.In the sequence where the mobile phone becomes the hub of the story, the edit between two shots the first in the present and the second in the past is a case in point. Part of the lighting set up of the second shot is dynamically incorporated into the last seconds of the first shot.The change in lighting in the first shot puzzles us momentarily until the cut at which point we understand the elision of the lighting.The effect on the audience is to make them feel that they have anticipated the second shot before they see it, collapsing time in the same way as the experience of déjà vu.
It is B’s central character, mother who dominates M.The mother operates as a dynamic shuttle combining within her persona, the woof and the warp the schizo opposing threads of Korean society.Apparently in Korean the word for murder can be understood as a pun on the word for mother. A dark pun; an appropriate sign for this context.M is composed out of dark material.The mother is a character in a primordial mythic tale.It is a tale set despite its contemporary setting, in a world before time, or at least, before our time.The mother is a sorceress drawing on the spirits to pursue her purpose of restoring her son to her.Her acupuncture needles, her knowledge of herbs are the surface signifiers of her shamanic qualities.But all through M there is something in the relationship of the mother to her handicapped son that suggests deeper pact with forces from another world.Mother and son sleep together.In one sequence the son pisses against a wall whilst waiting for a bus;the mother enters frame and watches intently as his water careless sprayed shoots from his penis.She watches his urine as of itwere a some kind ofportent.His piss too part of her knowing.
IN M, B suggests that mother and son are not two as they appear to be, but one.As if the son were part of mother, conjoined to her as her embodied male emanation.A familiar through whom she connects with the world.When she sets to prove her son’s innocence of the crime, we are finally shocked to understand that she is not workingin pursuit of any notion of justice.She works to restore to herself her familiar: whatever it takes; whatever the cost. The logic at work through B’s film is an older logic than that set in play by urban and Western values.The logic at work is the Shaman’s struggle with time; to defeat time by restoration of the situation to what it was, before time began: the big time.In this sense the Mother’s quest is magical not moral.Its magicality is alien to the civilising forces, but none the less real. In Bunuel’s film The Avenging Angle time can only flow again when everything is restored to its original position.
M provides insight into the nature of violence that plays a key expressive role in many films from SE Asia.I never understood why violence plays such a central role in films from this region until I saw in M that violence could be construed not just as a dynamic filmic device transforming situations but also as a quasi magical original force.Most of SE Asia has experienced rapid industrialisation urbanisation and globalisation as a comparatively recent process.A process that ripped people apart from their roots and hurled them into the machine of Western time.Artistically the expression of violence in the plastic media from these countries is like a chthonic forcea source of personal magical power still available to people when they have been deracinated, deprived of sense of place and time, and hurled by capitalism and global economy of consumerism into a world which is no longer in their control.Violence offers itself as a quasi magical practice that can be employed to destroy time and restore original personal space.
B’s M is built on fundamental oppositions: remembering - forgetting; fire - water; blue outer world - red blood inner world;town - country; the modern- the ancient;the smooth - the sharp.B uses these oppositions to reveal the psychic state of Korea, a country that almost unwittingly has been dragged from its rural peasant state into the global capitalist economy. The soundtrack is effective as an opposition motif taking ordinary overlooked sound and manipulating it so that it takes on another significance with its own life and meaning.Dramatically significant sounds are underplayed whilst the sort of white noise sound caused by pulling on a pair of gloves dominates the sound track.What we might consider significant might not be so; what we might dismiss from our attention might be worthwhile attending. The world of inversion.
In the way it is shot M brings to film some of the qualities of the writing of Kafka. The sequence in which the schoolgirl is stalked by the son elides the familiar and the unfamiliar in an unsettling fashion.In film terms nothing unusual is presented in this sequence but the effect of the way the 90" turns are composed is unsettling and uncertain.Likewise the scene in which the son is arrested, taken away in the police car which is then involved in a head on collision with another car.The effect interrupts the normal flow of cause and effect: it stops the world,to create a space where other things are possible.
And that shot at the opening of the movie? It is the dance of the mother in her triumph over time and memory; the dance of the triumph of magic over reason; the dance of her being present.