Remembering Murder: from “Memories of Murder” to “Mother”

Colette Balmain reviews Bong Joon-ho’s latest hit, and finds themes which echo his 2003 success

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Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, the Korean Film Council’s submission to the 2010 Oscars – 82nd Annual Academy Awards – under the category “Best Foreign Language Film”, has much in common with his 2003 Memories of Murder: a film based upon the abortive investigation into a string of serial murders that took place between 1986 and 1991 in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province. Indeed, Baek Kwang-Ho (Park No-shik), one of the suspects – and the only witness to the murders – in Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok, 2003) is a mentally retarded man, who lives at home with his mother. In Mother, once again we have a emotionally crippled young man, Do-joon (Won Bin), who is implicated in what appears to be a sexually motivated crime: here the murder of a young school girl.

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While in Memories of Murder we only hear in passing about Baek Kwang-Ho’s relationship with his mother, Mother (as the title suggest) concentrates on the seemingly incestuous relationship between son and mother (Kim Hye-ja), and as such develops a tangential story from his earlier film into the main plot focus of Mother. However while Baek Kwang-Ho is revealed to be “innocent” – of the murders at least – in Memories of Murder, Do-joon confesses to the murder of the school girl and is incarcerated as a result. As Do-joon suffers from short-term memory loss and cannot remember what he was doing at the time of the murder (possibly as a result of his mother’s attempt to kill him and commit suicide in order that they could be together in the afterlife when he was four), it is left to his mother to prove his “innocence.” She teams up with his only friend, the handsome but thuggish Jin-Tae (Jin Ku), and together they attempt to reconstruct what happened the night of the young girl’s murder.

Won Bin and Kim Hye-ja
Won Bin and Kim Hye-ja

The performances by the leads are excellent, especially Kim Hye-ja as the self-sacrificing Mother and Won Bin as her damaged son. As in Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-ho is less concerned with the circumstances of the crime itself than in its impact on a small rural community. As the mother investigates, we discover the seedy underbelly of the community where sex is a commodity to be bartered for money and alcohol, lawyers are motivated by money rather than justice, and violence amongst young men is ubiquitous. It is not too much of a push to see the mother as a metaphor for the nation as a whole, and the film as an allegorical commentary on modern day South Korea. There is something deeply ironic here as before the screening, there was a short promotional video by the Korean Tourist Board.

Some of those expecting the big budget action of The Host (Gwoemul, 2006) will no doubt be disappointed. However along with Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (Bakjwi, 2009) and Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (Chugyeogja, 2006), Mother is one of the best films to come out of South Korea in recent years and provides a timely reminder that there is more to Korean – and East Asian cinema – than the “extreme” moniker that East Asian cinema has become inextricably associated with in the West.

“Bearing Witness: Post-traumatic identity in contemporary Korean horror cinema: Spider Forest and Mother“: Colette Balmain will be presenting her paper on Monday in conjunction with Director Bong’s visit to Nottingham.

Mother screens tonight at the BFI South Bank, followed by Q&A with the director

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