Mother, oh, mother….
Two nights ago I watched Bong Joon-ho’s 2009 film, Mother. I’m a fan of his earilier film, The Host, and love what he does with splicing different genres. Mother is also a combo-punch of films. I don’t want to say too much about the plot points because I don’t want to spoiler it or even place too many suggestions on what it might be like; it’s best just to watch the entire film if the trailer makes you curious. I must say that I found it extremely intense. It was also visually gorgeous and the acting was excellent. I don’t know if I could say I enjoyed the film. I found it gripping, disturbing, extremely interesting…. I would definitely recommend it, though one must not turn to it as a feel-good film. No, certainly not that.
Sometimes when I read reviews by viewers outside of the culture of origin (i.e. Western reviewers of, say, international films) I wonder about the gestures and meanings that cannot be decoded by peoples who live with a different cultural grammar. For instance, the hero of the film, Mother, is the single parent to an adult-aged child who has mental challenges. Do-Joon has a very small working memory and behaves in a “child-like” manner. One of the details that might seem more extreme and “weird” by a Western audience as opposed to an Asian one is that 28 yr old Do-Joon sleeps in the same bed as his mother. So much cultural context can be misread or missed entirely…. I guess this is so about any decoding of art forms, but it would be good to keep this in mind when approaching films, books, art from cultures not one’s own: it is very likely that I’m missing a lot of references. I see the picture, but what I see is a partial image, and tinted with my subjective reading of what things signify. Moving onward, this film has got me thinking about so many things, but not surprisingly, I’ve been ruminating on various depictions of “mother” to be found in literature and popular culture.
The DVD cover image is alarming. It’s a close headshot in 2/3 profile, Mother’s hair is in maddened disarray, the only use of colour (only RED! on black and white photo) is in the cap font of the title, her shirt, and her bloodshot eyes. This is an image of mother of madness…. There’s also a long thin silvery object that’s held upon her shoulder and rising up past her neck, alongside her head. It’s not entirely clear what this shiny silver object is, but it is ominious. It looks a little like a sword. There is an implication of violence. Bong is most careful with his use of symbolism and recurring motifs. I think I ought to go back and watch more carefully the details without the distractions of plot. This film is truly gorgeous particularly in constrast to the violence and tragedy unfolding…. And his use of the same symbols and images, at different points and different settings resonate with such intensity. I really enjoy the ways he seamlessly contextualizes class tensions within the workings of plot. He also did this in The Host (an SF monster-film, political critique and comedy and trajedy….!!! Truly! He mashed it all up and I thought it worked. He made it funny not by accident, but because he wanted comic elements! Not for all viewers, I suppose.).
So, mother-love is the force that transforms multiple characters’ lives in Bong’s film. I’m curious about how different people decode this narrative structure. In 2004 I was on a panel with Finnish writer, Johanna Sinisalo. I was so chuffed we ended up on the same panel because we’d both won the James Tiptree Memorial Award (in different years) and it was neat to meet her. Anyway, the topic of the panel was something like “Love in literature”. And it turned out that we both thought that the most powerful examples of love was that of the mother toward her beloved child. (This is not to suggest that all mothers love this way, or that all mothers love. Some mothers do not love their children. Shit happens.) The other panelist thought the greatest love was between a man and woman. It so happened that the other panelist was male. Clearly there is not enough data to make any conclusions, here, but perhaps someone can do a graduate project in this area…. ^__^
Consider the figure of mother in popular culture, film, tv and literature. We have the archetypes (sexist? patriarchal?essentialist?) of the long-suffering devoted mother. We have the evil stepmother. We have the failed mother. And we must not forget the “disappeared”-mothers so rampant in Disney narratives! Which mother characters stand out for you?
My first most memorable positive mother character was that of Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel. Maybe “positive” is misleading– Hagar Shipley was a deeply flawed character and an uneven mother. I guess what I was taken with was that she was utterly believable, flawed, human and marvellously “unbeautiful”. What was “positive” for me was that she was a character who portrayed a mother that was not limited to stereotype and generalizations.
It’s a little embarrassingly low-brow, but I have a fondness for the film, The Long Kiss Goodnight (the homophobic jokes throughtout of the film firmly set to the side) because it’s just kinda cool to imagine that a frumpy middle-class teacher/mom is an amnesiac assasin….
My heart breaks for the mother character that Julianne Moore played in The Hours.
There’s Mrs. Parsons in the Tiptree short story, “The Women Men Don’t See”. I LOVE her!!!
I can’t remember where I read it, but someone said/wrote that there’s a dearth of mother characters in fantasy and sf, particularly for adventures with children as the hero, because if the child’s mother was around the child would not have to go off and fight evil/save the world/slay monsters, because the mother would do this for the child…. This is a bit of a plot connundrum for the writer who wants to include three- dimensional and positive and realistically diverse depictions of mothers in fiction…. In fact, Melanie’s mother in my own novel, Half World, is missing for most of the novel…. >_< !!!!!
I still want to write a mother of all novels…. ~__~