Psychosinematics: Examining the Destruction of Mother and Son in Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Mother’
Bong Joon-ho is one of those psychologically insightful directors whose works portray more than what they seem. The first watching of any one of his movies may leave you amazed, yet puzzled by the themes and values he explores. Just as with his celebrated work, Parasite 기생충, it’s as if you’re left with more questions at the end of the film than when you first started with, unsettling you from within. That’s how it was for me too when I first watched Mother 마더 (2009).
On the surface, it seems like your usual mystery thriller film. It follows the story of an intellectually challenged man, Do-joon (Won Bin), who has been charged with a murder of a young girl. Convinced that her son is innocent, Do-joon’s mother (Kim Hye-ja) does everything in her power to absolve her one and only child.
You leave with a strange and unsettled feeling by the end of it – there’s more to the film than initially meets the eye. Mother has a remarkable understanding of the human psyche, particularly Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic perspectives.
Spoilers for ‘Mother’ ahead.
The Incomparable Mother and Son Bond
I’ve always been conflicted with Freudian theories. Having majored in psychology, Freud’s not exactly my favourite, with all his controversial claims here and there. But I’ll also admit that his perspectives are fascinating in the world of literature and film. Mother is like a textbook specimen of Freudian psychoanalysis.
You may already know a bit about the infamous concept of the Oedipus complex, a psychological phenomenon where the son develops a sexual desire for his mother. Of course, the scandalous nature of this claim is easily over sensationalized and misinterpreted. But to be more exact, psychoanalytic theory uses Freudian and other psychological concepts to read and interpret the subject, in this case, the film. And according to literary psychoanalytic theory, the Oedipus complex can simply refer to a desire of any kind.
This desire can be for power, fame or love, not necessarily sexual. In the attempts to realise these desires, conflicts may arise. Usually, the weaker and the more dependent person is the one who has to manage and resolve this conflict, which is why it’s usually the child with the complex.
But in typical Bong fashion, Mother subverts this. Instead, there’s a reversal of roles, where the mother is the one having to cope with her son growing up and becoming his own person.
In Mother, Do-joon’s unnamed mother ‘desires’ her son – to protect and take care of him. Her overbearing love for Do-joon is infantilizing, even considering the fact that he is intellectually and socially inept. That she isn’t even given a name suggests that her purpose revolves completely around her son. Her motherhood is her identity.
She is tormented by her need to protect Do-joon. When he was five years old, she tried to poison and kill him with the intention of killing herself next so they can “frolic in heaven’s flower garden” instead of being stuck in their miserable lives. This is precisely what psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan states what desire can do to an individual.
I love you, but, because inexplicably I love in you something more than you, I mutilate you.Jacques Lacan
Now this may seem like an overly convoluted idea (but let’s be real, psychoanalysis is a bewildering topic anyway), so let’s break it down. Her love for her son, while honourable, has been inexplicably corrupted that it becomes both his and her downfall.
Do-joon informs her identity and purpose so heavily that without him, she is also essentially non-existent. To the mother, this dynamic goes both ways – she cannot imagine a world for her son without her in it. She is her protector and saviour. So she decides that the best solution for the both of them is to die together.
But this murder-suicide attempt fails, and she is ridden with the reality that she has just tried to kill her own son. This guilt only heightens her neurotic anxiety towards her son’s safety and she becomes even more overprotective of him even as an adult.
His mother is unable to accept that her son is capable of murder. Even after she discovers that there was a witness to this crime, instead of accepting the reality, she resorts to killing the witness not only to protect her son, but to also maintain the facade of a healthy, loving mother-son relationship.
Bong’s use of psychoanalytic symbolism is very well-done, it’s highlighted just enough but not too much to really make an impact. The mother’s acupuncture needles, if you can believe it, is in fact readable as a phallic symbol.
Now if you’re rolling your eyes at this, it may be time to again point out some misconceptions with psychological terms. Yes, a phallic symbol does refer to the penis. But to be more precise, the phallus represents power, specifically male power. The man has power only if he possesses the phallus. So the phallic symbol is not actually to be read as a literal interpretation.
In Mother, the power lies not with the man but with the woman. Do-joon is helpless, locked up for a crime that his mother thinks he didn’t commit. It’s her duty to do everything in her power to set him free. As trivial as it may seem, her acupuncture needles in fact represent her fervent dedication and strength.
The acupuncture needles become her go-to weapon. She tries to ‘fix’ Do-joon with acupuncture when he remembers that she tried to kill him when he was a child. When she visits the junk collector, who she thinks is the actual killer of the young girl, she comes under the pretense of an acupuncture treatment. This is all part of her plan to expose him and exonerate Do-joon. But she finds out that Do-joon was really the killer, and she switches her murder weapon from the acunpuncture needle to the sledge hammer. If we really want to take it further, the sledge hammer is also a male weapon, a phallic symbol. She wields this weapon, and thus the power.
Mother gives us a disturbing look into the destructiveness of love, something that’s supposedly the core of life, a source of strength. There’s a corruption of motherly love from pure to profane. The mother is supposed to be the “safe place of origin”, but this is clearly not the case for Do-joon and his mother. Their relationship is toxic, with each one inevitably contributing to the corruption of the other.
Whether or not I believe in the scientific accuracy of Freudian psychoanalytic theory is beside the point. Artistically, Bong’s use of psychoanalysis is so compelling that I can suspend my own personal opinions about Freud.
This is what I love about Bong’s works, I’m always left questioning what really matters, or how good and evil is really differentiated. It’s like nothing is really purely good, or purely evil. As we see in Mother, depravity can be found even in good deeds such as protecting one’s child. And as difficult as it may be to concede, we can kind of admit that there’s a part in everyone that might be willing to transgress if it means the protection of the one we love so dearly.