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Mother Love: Two Views

Families come in all forms these days, and the role of the mother is constantly being re-defined.  Two recent films give us a fascinating glimpse into the interesting and powerful turns the shifting role of the mother can take. These films focus on two women and their very different ways of becoming and being mothers. The 2009 film Mother, directed and written by Bong Joon-Ho , is another in a list of recent offerings from South Korea which has experienced an upsurge in young new directors and writers producing some of the best movies in the past five years.

Mother is a stark departure from Bong’s previous film The Host which was a campy yet complicated and masterful science fiction monster movie that was everything Cloverfield should have been.  This time around Bong creates an intimate, highly charged view of the mother as protector and nurturer. Kim Hye-ja , in the title role, imbues her portrayal with the stoic, single-mindedness that comes with being the long suffering mother of a mentally handicapped child who is far more dangerous to himself than he is to others.    Her son, Yoon, played by Won Bin is a typical adolescent with all the curiosity and angst wrapped up in a growing body and saddled with a mind that works at about half speed.  Yoon and his mother live in an apartment that is attached to his mother’s herbal pharmacy.  As the film opens we immediately see that Yoon’s mother is struggling with letting her son have more freedom.  She obsessively watches his every move and when Yoon and his ne’er do well friend, Jin-tae get into a small bit of trouble she reluctantly trusts Jin to watch her son’s back in the aftermath.  Unfortunately, Jin is not as watchful as Yoon’s mother and through a series of seemingly random events Yoon comes to be accused of the murder of a local high school girl.  The homicide is the first one recorded in the small town in many years and the populace is shocked when Yoon, the enfeebled son of a single mother, becomes the primary suspect.    The police, after a short investigation, view the case as a slam dunk, and Yoon is quickly whisked off to prison.  Throughout all of this Yoon’s mother displays every manner of ways a parent can stand behind her son, but circumstances quickly spin out of her control and she is shoved along by events.  Eventually, after a few visits to Yoon in prison, his mother becomes despondent and about to give up when Jin appears to help prove Yoon’s innocence but only if Yoon’s mother gives him most of her life savings to do so.  She gives what she has left of her money after paying off the ambulance chasing lawyer who failed to keep Yoon out of jail.  The extortion does nothing to help find out what really happened and eventually Yoon’s mother comes to suspect that Jin himself might be involved.  These suspicions yield a grim result which serves as the denouement of the film.

From there the story takes a series of twists that serve to ratchet up the tension which culminates in an ending that is unexpected, satisfying and the essence of bittersweet.  Mother is a unique view of single motherhood and although the setup of a struggling mother raising a handicapped child may seem hackneyed, foreshadowing a syrupy story full contrived uplift and over-important message, this film is as far from that sort of clap trap as can be.

Although there is an essence of verisimilitude in the film Mother, it is still essentially a fable, a yarn.  This is not the case with Winter’s Bone which has the weight of sad reality pressing down upon every frame. At the opening of the film the central character, 17 year old Ree Dolly, portrayed by an astonishing Jennifer Lawrence, finds out that her father has skipped bail and left her alone with her two younger siblings and a mother who is so mentally incapacitated that she is just this side of being in a vegetative state.  What’s more, Ree’s father, a drug addict and Meth manufacturer, has put up the house and the land it sits on as collateral.  If Ree can’t find her father in a week’s time, they will be put out of their home.  The story takes place in the present day rural Ozarks  where the quaint old time battle between moonshiners and Federal Revenue men has long been replaced by Methamphetamine, Oxycontin and law enforcement that is essentially standing on the sidelines while drugs wash over every corner of life destroying everything in its path.  Young Ree is steadfast and stoic to the point of being almost superhuman when it comes to rearing her siblings; making sure they don’t end up homeless and quite possibly split up. Although Ree is unbelievably heroic and smart, the depiction is natural and subtle.  The combination of Ms. Lawrence’s outstanding acting and the beautiful sparseness of the  dialogue serve to ground the film in grim reality despite the almost preposterous premise.  The dialogue is pitch perfect and very taut.  The viewer will catch more nuances of plot and action by watching the actor’s faces rather than listening to the dialogue; the two together, however, make Winter’s Bone a wonder to watch.  

As we get deeper into the story we see Ree coming up against resistance from all sides.  The Ozarks are full of insular families and clans composed of extended families tied together by grinding poverty and drugs.  The matter-of-fact way the use and manufacture of drugs is effectively handled in the film serves to underscore the plight of an area and group of people who, when grasping to survive, caught hold of the only industry in the area that pays a living wage. Drugs. There is no indictment, no judgement.  Drugs are seen as a fact of life and integral to the social fabric.  There are people on both sides and the divide deepens every day.  We see this issue in stark relief as Ree comes up against the strongest clan in the area, a family group that controls all of the drug business in Ree’s neck of the woods.  This family holds the key to Ree’s father’s whereabouts and since that information is directly tied to the security of their business, Ree painfully learns that some questions just won’t get answered.

Eventually, Ree’s journey ends with her forestalling any dreams she may have had for herself to be her sibling’s mother because  they need her, and more than anything, Ree wants them all to be together.  The ending of the film is cautiously optimistic and like Bong Joon-Ho's Mother, bittersweet, but where Mother ends with an almost mythical tone, Winter’s Bone finishes as it began;  in the grey overcast of a late autumn Ozark twilight.

I must say, I saw this film (Winter’s Bone) before I saw The Social Network, which by all lights appears to be the front runner for Best Picture Oscar.   However quixotic it may be, I’ll be pulling for Winter’s Bone to win Best Picture this year and at the very least Jennifer Lawrence should get the nod for best actress and John Hawkes, who portrays Ree’s recalcitrant uncle Teardrop, should get the Best Supporting Male Actor Oscar.  The Social Network has been dubbed the film about “who we are now”.  I think Winter’s Bone is closer to that platitude.  See it.  It’s brilliant.