What is it like to be a rebel? To spend every second on the edge? It’s hard to explain, unless you live it every day. Like me. Joon-ho Bong’s Memories of Murder is considered one of the films of the decade by many, but not by me. I enjoyed it and recommend it, but I did not see anything earth-shattering. Perhaps its trivial similarities to Zodiac take a little bit of the impact from each film, which is totally unfair. But I’m a small man in some ways. A small, petty man. After Memories of Murder, Bong made The Host, which is easily the highest-grossing Korean film of all time, making about $90 million in worldwide box office. Perhaps more surprisingly, it might be the most critically celebrated monster movie since the original King Kong. It was OK, but I say that critics got carried away because the film put a chip in the paint on the armor of Hollywood’s monopoly on such films. Now Bong has released Mother to lukewarm critical response and I think you can make a good argument that it Bong’s best film I’ve seen.
At Ruthless we don’t really concern ourselves with spoilers. Holy shit, Batman doesn’t die. But for maybe the third or forth time, I’ll tell you that my primary recommendation is that you stop reading at this point and just see this thought-provoking, engrossing thriller before I give everything away, then come back so that I can spoonfeed you understanding of the film. Not that I was utterly shocked by the fact that the retard did it, but I hadn’t really considered the possibility until late in the game, after I had sniffed after a couple of classic red herrings like a chump. I was taken in, not only because of my limited intelligence, but because the film blends genres so well that it keeps you unsure of where you are and where you are going. It feels like a mystery here, a morality tale there, and then a revenge saga. But the changes in the film have more to do with the information Bong gradually releases to the viewer, and how that changes our perspective, than with him trying to mash up genres.
The basic premise of the film is that a ‘tard named Do-joon is about to be convicted of the murder of a beautiful schoolgirl on marginal evidence. Most people have assumed that he’s guilty, and at first it seems like his mother is the only one to have faith in his innocence. But Mother is never that simple. The police have pinned the murder on the ‘tard, largely because it was convenient to do so. There is significant evidence against him, plus, he isn’t right in the head. Though they think they have the right guy, I don’t think any of the cops would be willing to bet everything they owned on his guilt. It’s casually revealed that some other people in the area think Do-joon is probably innocent, but don’t really care. The mourning relatives of the girl (all female, described by others as bitches) have also assumed Do-joon’s guilt and lash out viciously at his mother when she attends a memorial service. But they seem like the sort of people who savor being wronged, so that they can righteously be nasty and hateful. If they were American, they would be making the rounds on right wing radio, shrieking for the death penalty, while the hosts verbally fantasized about prison rape. Do-joon’s friend, Ku Jin, eventually expresses belief in Do-joon’s innocence. After all, it was only a day before the murder that Ku jin tricked the ‘tard and his mom into taking the blame and footing the bill for an act of vandalism that he committed. It seems likely that the same thing has happened again. After extorting Do-joon’s mom of all her money, Ku Jin decides to help her find the real killer.
Now, this is a dark film, but I don’t think it’s the exercise in total cynicism that it is beginning to sound like. Ku Jin certainly exploits Do-joon’s retardation, but he also seems to generally look out for him. I mean, who really has a severely retarded person as a close friend on equal terms? Other retarded people and saints. Ku Jin is a greedy thug, but he keeps up his end of the bargain by taking revenge on those who wrong the ‘tard, even when the Do-joon has forgotten what happened to him. Maybe the revenge is, again, just a pretext for lashing out at people, maybe it derives from authentic feelings of friendship and loyalty. That uncertainty touches on the major and fascinating theme of the film which is how moral actions are separated into 1) motivation 2) function and 3) outcome. We see how these elements can mix and match like the reels of a slot machine in one of the film’s secondary relationships. 1) Ku Jin might be motivated by real fealty, he might be looking for a pretext to lash out, might be some of both. 2) The helpless Do-joon has someone to protect him and limit his exploitation (even if that person is the one doing the exploiting) 3) People who wrong the disabled man are punished. Sometimes people who are mistakenly thought to wrong him are punished too. You can see this mixing and matching of intentions, functions and outcomes throughout the film. The reason the moral issues are so well articulated is the same reason the thriller is so effective. The motivations of characters are constantly in question and the apparent facts of the situation are constantly shifting. Just as new clues and suspects in the case keep us locked into the mystery, thuggery can become a pursuit of justice and the pursuit of justice can become the pursuit of injustice. The police half-ass their way into arresting the right man, then are compelled to do just enough additional work to let the right man go and arrest the wrong man.
The main relationship is, of course, that between Do-joon, the perpetual child, and his mother. In recent philosophy, it’s been suggested that the kind of intense subjectivity in moral judgment generally associated with women, most obviously mothers, can be a virtue, in line with the model of Aristotelian virtue ethics. Maybe there is something good about having a person who is always on your side and making decisions out of loyalty and love, meaning the ideal world would not be populated by utilitarians running calculations and Kantians figuring how best to apply universal laws to every situation. There have been several films that have tried to make this case using optimistic scenarios, but Mother is the first I’ve seen to really explore the depths of the proposal, even though I doubt that Bong made the film in response to any academic question. I have no idea if he is interested in moral philosophy at all, but the director and his co-writer’s understanding of human behavior and his willingness to embrace uncertainty makes Mother one of the most interesting films ever made “about” moral philosophy. We see every dimension and outcome of the mother’s total loyalty and devotion. She fucks over other people to help her barely sentient son. If he were in fact innocent, she would surmount sloppy police work to save him from wrongful conviction. Being that he is guilty, her efforts, coupled with still more sloppy police work, free her guilty son and land another disabled boy in prison. We also see how her actions remain consistent as the nature of her motivations shifts, from freeing the innocent to freeing the guilty. Though from her perspective, it’s always freeing her son. In the end, she gets away with it and is able to release all her feelings of guilt about how she did it. Maybe this is another triumph of female subjectivity, but Judah does pretty much the same thing in Crimes and Misdemeanors, which is a good companion piece to Mother. The end result is the same in both movies, but between the two they cover about every possible way to get there, including selfishly calculated killing, thoughtless, almost accidental killing and killing out of love.
And, again, I don’t see the film as a condemnation or totally cynical simply because it explores a wide range of possibilities. It’s certainly dark, particularly when it comes to light that the mother’s greatest regret is that she failed in an effort to poison herself and Do-joon when he was only five. Her motivations, however, were to spare them suffering. The outcome would have been for the best, as they survive only to wind up suffering and seriously harming others on top of that. Only the action is very unpalatable. In any case, the general mechanism of unbending maternal devotion isn’t worthless because it leads to bad results in this case. Any kind of moral decision mechanism will very often lead to bad results because people are so often mistaken or poorly informed. Any system of moral or legal judgment is certain to set many guilty men free and send many innocent men to prison. People will do the right thing for the wrong reasons, the wrong thing for the wrong reasons and the wrong thing for the right reasons, with good and bad results coming from each scenario. The appeal of “virtue ethics,” then is that they are rooted in permanency, like maternal love. The only absolute certainty is that someone else will be there to pretentiously wank about it all.