(Repeat viewing, again I didn’t blog at TIFF ’09)
One of my favourite scenes in “Mother” is the abandoned amusement park scene. There’s awesomeness in the closeups of Jin-tae’s boots as he willfully beats the shit out of the horny, gossipy teenage schoolboys . But what I’m here to talk about is when Jin-tae’s best friend’s Mother (Hye-ja Kim) interacts with the same boys. She lights a cigarette and plays good cop to Jin-tae’s bad cop. She asks where the murdered schoolgirl Moon Ah-jung’s cellphone is. The previously fragile mother now looks tougher and sharper than nails, easily she gets the answers she needs.
That’s one of the hurdles that the titular Mother has to go through to prove that her slow-developed son is not the murderer of a girl. She tears up, she bravely ventures to places like the victim’s funeral and a sleazy Karaoke bar, she lies through her teeth. She’s technically a supporting character in her son’s life, their view of each other both Freudian and furious. But we later realize that it’s all about maintaining her world order as much as it is about getting her son out of jail. Hye-ja Kim also fills this character’s highs and lows, giving the best female performances of the past year.
This is the second Joon-ho Bong film I’ve seen (the first one was “The Host”). He explores known terrain/archetypes like schoolgirl innocence, low functioning emasculated men and according to Rick Groen, incompetent government officials, but he twists them in “Mother.” I’m not an expert in South Korean history and culture – cellphone culture and interconnectedness and other Asia-na is assumed as a part of a depiction of the said culture. But this movie’s so character driven anyway that it doesn’t get pigeonholed as a ‘film as national metaphor.’
Almost every frame in this movie is beautiful. From the close-ups to the natural landscapes of a Korean city to the valley-like cemeteries and streets to its attention to water and rain to its willingness to explore darkness. Blue hues are neo-noir’s best friend.
Sure the movie’s a bit slow and even the shocking twists (they’re the best ones in about a decade) don’t give it the punch that “The Host” did, but “Mother” is becoming more enigmatic the more I think of it.
Atom Egoyan has the benefit of a conventionally beautiful Hollywood cast and make them straddle between that and the common non celebrities that they were playing. The bridge in Chloe’s (Amanda Seyfried) nose disappears, Catherine (Julianne Moore) is Freckle City, David (Liam Neeson) looks like the typical British person who moves to Toronto and says “soccer” – yes, those people exist and they piss me off. Michael looks like the Torontonian with one or two weird features. Not saying that white people in Toronto have weird features, the upper middle class are beautiful and Nordic, just like half of the cast members I talked about. And there’s also the name dropping of certain places that makes me feel like this is supposed to be some twisted love letter to Toronto or something.
With that sort of ordinary people look is the ordinary people outlook. Specifically, a robotic, cynical, urban outlook of sex. Catherine is a gynecologist who tells a mousy troubled virgin that an orgasm is just a series of muscular contractions. Appetizing. Chloe narrates that she knows how to touch a man and what words to say, in an unconvincing baby voice but the text should stand in for her character. The sex scene between them is more honest than it is erotic, which I’m glad for that.
Which is why it’s so contradicts how Chloe would fall in love with her female client and stalk her. The arc between professional prostitute to histrionic stalker wasn’t done well, and Amanda Seyfried couldn’t make the material work. She’s the right age in the second half of the movie, but too young for the first half. And she keeps wearing that same jacket every single time and there’s no way that’s warm enough. Chloe and Catherine’s mindset may break down and succumb to the erotic but within two extremes?
Michael, however, is enjoyable to watch as the ungrateful private son and probably has the best put-downs in movie history (“Isn’t my mom your gynecologist?”). But he and Chloe eventually consummate because he’s a horny teenager and she’s just that good in seducing everyone, right?
There is an honestly good scene between Catherine and David putting all the cards in the table. They talk over each other, they say everything with conviction, they’re neither loud or campy enough to get the attention of everyone else in the cafe. But Chloe has to show up and ruin every other scene she’s in.
And I guess it’s my Torontonian cynicism about sex and adultery. Good examples either rationalize the act, that their partners are neglectful or that the adulterers have a memory they like to cling to. Most of the time in this movie I just kept shaking my head at these fucking idiots.
Listen Atom Egoyan. I know where you hang out, and when I see you I will panhandle the shit out of you. At least George Clooney is good enough to those who saw his Batman in theatres.
Remember when John Wayne was hot?
With him is a prostitute, an alcoholic doctor, a whiskey peddler, a soldier’s wife, a Confederate gambler, and a banker. That’s pretty much a capsule representing The West, all of whom are stuck with each other in the titular “Stagecoach.”
I wanna focus on the female characters in this movie. There’s Mrs. Mallory, a woman who I decided to like because of her complexity, but boy was it hard to like her. Her determination is admirable as she goes on a suicide mission to see her husband deep in the West where the Americans and the Apache are in war. Also, the film shows her worry about her husband while upping the bitchy treatment towards Dallas the prostitute (Claire Trevor). Some of us may excuse her condescending attitude to Southern breeding, but she already decided to ride the coach with Dallas. Would it hurt if she was two places away from her on the dining table? Besides, I’ve always preferred the whore over the virgin because the former juggles love, compulsion and loyalty while the latter is disgruntled like Mallory is sometimes. What made me turn around to liking her is seeing these two separate emotions and states of mind switch within seconds and still the same person, a woman having to deal with a volatile environment while learning more about herself.
Dallas is a more straightforward character, deeply affected by societal rejection. Besides, if the Ringo kid (John Wayne) likes her we must follow suit. The film also drops the bomb that she’s an orphan, something that she and Ringo have in common. Like Mallory, she gets a little bitchy towards Ringo because she doesn’t deserve him, she’ll just end up breaking her own heart.
I don’t even know why I’m questioning if they’re great characters or not, since they both have one problem atop another and both use meanness as a crutch. Maybe having those problems are a surefire way for us to like them despite their flaws. Or perhaps we get to know their past as a way of compression and to balance out the growing up that they have to do in a short time. Does having one problem after another equal nuance? Sure. Happens to male characters all the time. They’re the best written women in the John Ford movies or even better than half of the female characters written then and now.
I also wanna talk about how the movie looks. It’s visually uneventful and even badly acted in the beginning, and the burned stagecoach stop could have had more gravitas, but we get a zoom towards Ringo and it’s one good shot and moment after another. Documentary-like shots of the horses dipping across a river, Hatfield the Southerner (John Carradine) pointing the gun at Mallory’s head in slow motion, the light on Ringo and Dallas capturing the romance and the fear. Orson Welles apparently said that all he needed to follow the shot schemes at “Stagecoach” for “Citizen Kane,” but I saw the John Ford film as a precedent for “Touch of Evil,” the chiaroscuro and speed in both films capturing the chaos and violence of the time.