[Ed. N.: Obviously this has nothing to do with the titular mother in Albert Brooks’s amazing comedy Mother, which you can read all about here.]
In the opening shot of the Korean thriller Madeo (that’s “mother” in English”), an elderly woman appears in a field. She comes slowly to the camera. There is a mountain range behind her, but nothing else indicates signs of life around her. The soundtrack cues a soft Spanish guitar and, after she faces the camera with a blank stare that betrays nothing, the woman sways gently to the music. Where is the music coming from, if this were not a music video? This is the first sign that this is not the typical “revenge” epic that we can expect from South Korea, and even then, the famed revenge trilogy by Park Chan-Wook is like nothing else you’ve ever expected and there is nothing typical about it.
Do-Joon is not the brightest young man. He’s 27 years old and lives in a small seaside village in South Korea, miles away from the bright lights of Seoul. Here, everyone knows each other. His mother is some sort of apothecary, dispensing homemade herbal remedies and performing at-home acupuncture for village residents. He doesn’t appear to have a job and personifies the apt descriptor “a few bricks short of a load”. Obsessed with losing his virginity, it doesn’t help that he and his mother sleep in the same bed. She makes dishes that are designed to boost his virility. One night, he unsuccessfully chases a teenage girl in a desperate attempt to woo her. Because he is of less than average intelligence, he cannot recall what happened that night and is quite surprised to find himself arrested for the young girl’s murder. No thanks to inept local police forces and a worthless attorney, he lands in prison for 15 years. His distraught mother sets about finding out what truly happened, because she believes in the innate goodness of her son and doesn’t believe that he has the capacity to harm another human being.
Director Bong Joon-Ho, who made the stunning 2006 sci-fi horror thrilled The Host, removes the sci-fi element and places the horrors of people’s actions into the most unassuming setting. The trespasses and transgressions committed here are only between one another. Despite the penchant for Korean films to seamlessly incorporate elements of Christian theology into such cinematic masterpieces like 2006’s Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, this is a town that seems untouched by the Divine, a remote outpost in a godless universe where we are responsible for our own actions and inflict unspeakable horrors of the more mundane but no less horrific kind unto one another. Bong’s settings are drab, awash in shades of grey, whites and blacks. This is the kind of town where you can see lifers spending their entire existence without ever leaving.
There are extraordinary revelations in the latter half of the film. In a more conventional (I am trying not to say “American”) film, this would have been a straight-up revenge epic, with bloody retribution in the end. Madeo is structured more like a mystery, and as we find out more about the murder, we are slowly fed information about the poisonous relationship between mother and son, the dead girl’s life, the way minor players figure into the mystery, and it all ends in a whopping half-hour where everything becomes unambiguously clear. The effect is stunningly unsettling, if not downright upsetting. There is no cheap emotional payoff. Let’s just say that if this were remade in Hollywood, the go-to actress to play the mother wouldn’t be Ashley Judd, but Tilda Swinton.
Veteran actress Kim Jya-He plays the unnamed mother with extraordinary dedication and deep commitment. It is not enough for her to dress the part. The way the rumpled mismatched clothing, no doubt rescued from their local church donation bin or from years gone by, it’s as if she were born into the role wholly and completely. Kim, with her wearied gaze and all-consuming quest to clear her son’s name, always teeters quietly on the edge of insanity. She doesn’t even have a proper name in the film, for names won’t do her justice, as she exists purely in relation to her son and nothing else. Kim could quietly, politely speak at the young girl’s funeral – which she is just crazy enough to attend out of genuine respect for her son’s alleged victim – and unleash an unreal primal scream of a banshee wailing in moments of extreme crisis. It’s one of the most challenging cinematic roles of the last few years and Kim knocks it out of the park.
Bong doesn’t end his film in any way you expect it to, or unfold in a manner you could see coming from a mile away. Everything is painted in shades of gray, although sometimes you don’t know if you are in darkness staring at the light or vice versa. Nor would you want it to. Without giving anything away, we eventually arrive at a point in the narrative where all seems to be resolved, and the opening shot comes up again to inform what we initially saw. There’s context and closure, no matter how unseemly things might be. The final shot, despite what you see, has a dark undercurrent emerging from a demented mind informed by Greek tragedy. The Oedipal undertones in the film are not accidental. And the titular mother’s sacrifices for her son become alarmingly crystal-clear.
Madeo was one of the finest films of 2009 and was the official South Korean entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is available on Netflix. You can view the trailer below.