The Mother of all Korean cinema | Bleader

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Mother of all Korean cinema

Posted By on 05.24.12 at 11:14 AM

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  • Mother
Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece Mother screens tonight at Doc Films as part of its nearly completed Korean New Wave series, which has boasted such notable titles as Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day (2008), Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron (2003), and another Bong masterpiece, The Host (2006). As a fan of genre cinema and its assorted rules and regulations, I’ve come to have a fierce admiration for Bong and his ilk. The way they commandeer genre techniques and contextualize them with nationalistic concerns is indicative of a cinephilic sect of directors with more on their minds than just movies. It’s important to note that Hong, Kim, and Lee Chang-dong are less zestful when it comes to genre, though their work remains equally as vital.

But in speaking specifically about Bong and Mother, the most immediate element of the mise-en-scene is the genre alchemy that transpires. The film begins as a love story, turns into a noir, and ends as some sort of synthesis of the two. All the while, Bong takes any and all liberties with narrative and characterization in order to better serve his operatic style. He’s a deconstructionist at heart, easily identified in the conception of the film’s titular mother, played by Kim Hye-ja, an actress famous for her portrayals of mothers on Korean television. In the film, she’s known simply as “Mother,” and seems to represent an amplified paternal force that deconstructs the Confucian characterization of motherhood.

Central to understanding Bong’s work is his preoccupation with the evolving landscape of South Korea, which has seen dramatic changes in the wake of the country’s rapid modernization. The once serene countryside of Mother’s setting now appears overrun by cosmopolitan excess, but rather than simply bemoan the transforming landscapes, Bong finds ways to conceptualize them as genre elements, as evident in The Host and its monster-movie framework melded with an eco-conscious conceit. In Mother, the new terrain has opened up possibilities for the violence and oedipal psychosexuality of a film noir, perhaps something like Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (1947). There's much more to the film beyond its generic flairs, but such an undertaking requires more work than my word count allows.

Though the series is wrapping up, it’s not too late to catch Mother or next week’s screening of Lee’s Poetry (2010), a film that also features a maternal figure (Yun Jeong-hie, to be precise—a venerable Korean actress who was cajoled out of retirement to play the role) and her dealings with familial criminality in the wake of a shifting social climate. Personally, I’ve found the series helpful not only for reaffirming my esteem for Korean cinema but also for preparing me for what lies ahead: the series unfolded chronologically, successfully providing me with a head full of steam as we enter the next decade, which so far has not only bore new and exciting works from Hong and Im Sang-soo (with more on the way, as both directors recently premiered new work at this year’s Cannes film festival) but will mark the English-language debuts of Bong and Chan Wook-park, as well as the long-awaited return of Lee Jeong-hyang, who hasn’t released a new film since 2002’s The Way Home.

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