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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Bong Joon Ho’s Mother finds a Hitchcock disciple at his most Hitchcockian

Illustration for article titled Bong Joon Ho’s Mother finds a Hitchcock disciple at his most Hitchcockian
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Ben Wheatley’s take on Rebecca in theaters and en route to Netflix, we’re singling out other Hitchcockian thrillers—ones that explicitly recall the master of suspense.

Mother (2009)

In interview after interview, Bong Joon Ho cites Alfred Hitchcock as an inspiration—including in his talk with The A.V. Club, where he said he’s “admired [Hitchcock] since I was little, and I think I’m under his umbrella.” Every one of Bong’s films takes a cue from Hitchcock in one way or another, but the influence is never closer to the surface than in 2009s Mother (not to be confused with Albert Brooks’ Mother or Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!). The subject matter helps, of course; compared to a Bong genre-bender like Parasite, Mother is easy to classify. It’s a psychological thriller, specifically a mistaken-identity one (a Hitchcock specialty) about a meek, selfless widow (Kim Hye-ja) who sets out on an increasingly amoral quest to clear the name of her intellectually disabled son, Do-joon (Won Bin), after he’s accused of murder.


Although the actor may not be immediately recognizable to viewers abroad, in casting the role of the fierce mama bear, Bong was pulling off another Hitchcockian trick. When Janet Leigh first appeared on screen in early showings of Psycho, one of the reasons the audience was so shocked (spoiler alert for one of the most iconic sequences in film history) by her death midway through the film was that you don’t just kill off a movie star like Janet Leigh before the end of the movie. And you don’t expect South Korea’s most famous mom, the star of dozens of TV dramas where she plays the perfect, self-sacrificing Korean wife and mother, to pay a petty criminal to beat the snot out of two preteen boys while she cooly smokes a cigarette in the background.

But that’s just one of the desperate crimes committed by Kim Hye-ja as the title character in Mother, a woman so selfless she doesn’t even have a name. That particular act of hard-bitten intimidation takes place at an abandoned carousel straight out of Strangers On A Train, a film also evoked in the dirty panes of glass that are placed between the viewer and the pivotal moment that reveals what really happened to poor murdered schoolgirl Moon Ah-jung. These recall the reflection of Miriam Hayne’s murder in her own abandoned eyeglasses in that 1951 film, a distancing technique that reflects the psychological compartmentalization both killers need to live with their crimes.

More generally, Mother is a Hitchcockian film because Bong continually creates tension and suspense, on a macro level but also a micro one. (See: a closeup of a puddle of water slowly spreading toward a sleeping person’s fingertips, or a hand absentmindedly chopping herbs with a heavy guillotine blade). There’s the murder mystery element, of course, which Bong teases in a voyeuristic tracking shot following Moon Ah-jung around the tight corners and dark tunnels of a labyrinthine footpath moments before her death. But we’re also holding our breaths watching Mother’s unlikely slide into moral corruption, prompted when she simply cannot take one more moment of being pushed aside, dismissed, and ignored.

One could call the film’s view on motherhood pessimistic, even nihilistic in the lengths Mother will go to to protect her precious boy. She sees him as an extension of herself, both taking the blame for what happened and stubbornly refusing to let the years she’s invested in him go to waste. Ironically enough, by pushing Do-joon to remember what happened that night, Mother may actually be laying the groundwork for a fundamental shift in their relationship, as revealed in a shocking twist toward the end of the film. As a character study and as a murder mystery, Mother dives into the darkest depths of the human psyche. It would make the master of suspense proud.

Availability: Mother is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and for free with ads on VUDU and Tubi. It can also be rented or purchased digitally from Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Fandango, and VUDU.


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