Wednesday 8 September 2010

Mother (Joon-ho Bong, South Korea, 2009)

Why is Do-joon’s mother dancing?

The joy of the perfect thriller comes with the reveal. A number of conditions – of course – apply. The image that will be revealed needs to be well hidden throughout the film, the truth must remain in
ellipsis right up to the denouement. There is nothing worse than reasoning out the mystery before the final disclosure. A caveat here: the ruse, the red herring. With an amalgam of satisfaction (at our own cleverness) and disappointment (at the filmmaker giving too much away) we think we’ve got it! Only to discover cinematic subterfuge, it was someone or something else entirely. Even subtler still, a ploy or stratagem is signalled as possibly being as such, or appears as a fake reveal. Thus propagating ambiguity with a self-reflexive quality before the true disclosure. In the second place, the exposé also needs to be a function of the narration. The conditions for the disclosure need to have been there all along, embedded in moments of the movie, hidden in plain sight. The twist should not be imposed from the outside. There is nothing worse (really, this time) than discovering the reveal was impossible to reason. Finally, the reveal must have a certain necessity. That which is disclosed by the actions of the characters – in retrospect – must be the only possible outcome. This does not strictly concern images and narration, but rather narrative. The perfect thriller does not simply reveal what happened, but through revealing what happened determines the situation. Anything other will simply be an arbitrary answer to any-old-question, rather than the completion and consummation of a permeating theme.

Mother is the perfect thriller. There is misdirection. There is a twist – and you do not see it coming. That which is revealed is not imposed from the outside, it appears both functional and essential; it is something that is integral to the narrative of the film, making the theme vital and vivid.

We can describe this type of film as an action-image of the small form operating through an index of lack.

To read the full exploration of Mother through the Deleuze's sign of 'index of lack,' see Deleuze's Cinema Books: Three Introductions to the Taxonomy of Images


  1. David, I believe, rather than being clever or honest, Mr. Bong's usage/switching of perspectives stinks of convenience. I'm not sure the technique here is being honest to the audience, and even giving them an iota of chance, even based on psychology, to decipher the what could have happened. I mean, it is a scriptwriting trick, that omission of information.
    Consider for example a pivotal moment in the plot, and what a mediocre choice of editing Mr. Bong resorts, completely betraying his lack of faith in us. The retard, drunk to his bones, is following the young school girl late in the night. He says to her something rude. She walks into a dark recess. He looks at it, and walks away. Out comes a stone, aimed at the retard, and the scene cuts. Later in the film, the scene plays again, but this time beefed up with more information. That is wrong. If Mr. Bong had chosen to tell us what the girl said, and then employed his edit, only to learn alongwith the film what the words in it cause, it would have been applause-worthy. And I believe it wouldn’t have diminished any of the plot’s intrigue.

    Still the film contains one of the most disturbing dissolves in recent memory. The dead body is up there, not buried, but hanging on the terrace. It is a strange sight, and certainly one of the strangest in my time at the movies. It is not calling attention to itself, like one of them ghastly scenes in say Se7en, but in its simplicity, it is alarming. A dead girl body hanging over the terrace. It is one of the images of cinema 2009, bringing a tipping point of sorts within Mother.

  2. Hi man in the iron mask...

    Thanks for your take on the film... In response... I can’t agree the film aint clever... and as for honest, well, that's as maybe... but it is a thriller, and thrillers thrive on dishonestly and spectator manipulation… and indeed, the thing is, all cinema is manipulation... from what appears in the frame to the music that is used. I guess not noticing the manipulation could be seen as a good thing, or a bad thing… but when you notice the manipulation, is that necessarily bad?

    Bong not showing what happened after the rock was thrown at Do-joon was indeed hidden from the spectator. No doubt this can be 'justified' in the sense that Do-joon has memory problems and he just didn’t remember it, retroactively, because he didn’t remember it, it was never shown on screen...

    However, I am not trying to defend Bong... as I say in my 'about this site,' this blog is not a review nor a critique... a film is difficult to make, and is as good as it is... I am just trying to explore what is on screen, and see what can be said about the film...

    I think you have a healthy ambivalence towards Mother... so keep on keeping on...


  3. Fine review, thank you.
    Just had the choice to see the movie. Loved it. Being a psychopathologist I see how 'removal' is the best term applying to some of Mother characters' behaviors and crimes. A complex issue Joon-Ho Bong work represents brilliantly in the thriller form. Loved the 'life dance' that opens and closes the movie. It really touched me. One more 'thrilling' twist of the movie.