(Spoilers ahead) While the concept of motherhood remains to be an essence in many Korean films, director Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother and director Lee Chang-Dong’s Poetry have thrilled the hearts of their audience as they both handle motherhood in very powerful ways. Although both critically acclaimed films follow a mother figure who tries to protect her son from his sin, they each deal with this heavy issue in somewhat similar but significantly different manner. In Mother, a 2009 film directed by Bong Joon-Ho, the mother refuses to be suppressed by the law and eventually oppresses it in order to save her son with her rather excessive motherly love. However, in Poetry, a 2010 film directed by Lee Chang-Dong, the grandmother tries to oppress the law to protect her grandson but eventually becomes suppressed, for she cannot turn away from her moral consciousness.
As the mother in Mother instinctively acts on her emotions and unconditional love for her son, the portrayal of motherhood in Bong’s film seems realistic in spite of its extreme level of violence. On the other hand, the grandmother in Poetry is far from being blinded by her unconditional love. As her poetry instructor tells her that “the most important aspect of writing poetry is seeing,” the grandmother forces herself to open her eyes to distinguish the right from wrong. Thus, the portrayal of motherhood in Lee’s film seems to be more idealistic despite the absence of extremity like that in Bong’s film.
The two mother figures ultimately differ in terms of emotion, realism and idealism, and finally, their struggles against the law and morals. One mother lets herself purge out her emotions even beyond her own limits and thus allows the catharsis to take over her entire psychological being. The other mother represses her emotions and allows her ethics to control her actions and thoughts. In the end, motherly love somewhat prevails, albeit it takes on a negative spin, in one tale of motherhood, whereas law and morals prevail in the other.
Thus, the debate between the realism of motherhood in Mother versus the idealism of motherhood in Poetry can come into a brighter spotlight. The mother in Mother rejects even the most miniscule possibility of her son committing misdeeds and is willing—whether consciously or unconsciously—to become a criminal herself in order to protect her son. She begins her solitary fight against the world that does not believe in what she believes to be her son’s innocence. She yells off the top of her lungs that her son is absolutely not the one who has killed the young girl at the funeral. With the exception of the extremity of the circumstances, this particular cry of the mother reflects upon the common reactions of almost any other mother in reality who may face a conflict with another parent or adult because of her child’s potential misdeed. The mother of reality will most likely fight for her child and possibly blame the other adult or parent or the children of that parent. A mother will believe and insist that her children can do no wrong.
However, the grandmother represents the mother of idealism, for she cannot throw away her morals and ethics even from the beginning when she first hears of her grandson’s crime. It is with no intention to imply that no mothers of reality has the ethical conscience to believe that her children can be capable of misdeed, but it must be understood that the grandmother in Poetry is the possibly the greatest epitome of the most ideal mother figure. The grandmother attempts to reject her grandson’s crime and attempts to go beyond her limits to protect her grandson, but ultimately, she turns him into the police and lets justice prevail. Afterwards, though, whether or not she has been motivated by her possibly guilty conscience of turning her grandson in, the grandmother commits suicide in hopes to never become a burden to her grandson or her own daughter. For the grandmother, such tranquil suicide is her last attempt at displaying her unconditional love for her children. As she has been suppressed by her morals to fulfill her social role and responsibility as a mother figure, she at least wishes for a life free of unnecessary burden for both her grandson and daughter. In contrast to the grandmother’s ideal image of motherhood, the mother in Mother unwittingly becomes somewhat of a burden to her retarded son. By the end of the film, it is not necessarily clear whether or not the son has matured, but it is clear that the son is giving more care to his mother—giving her a cup of water, buying her a bag of food to share with other mothers, and hiding her evidence at the crime scene. This subtle transition of power evidently reflects upon the mothers of reality once again, for a mother in reality also unwittingly becomes a subject of care for her children as they mature and grow older.
Nevertheless, the power struggles that the two mother figures go through against the law and morals are strong enough evidence to conclude that a mother’s strength lives long before it can finally diminish. In both films, the mother figures push back and forth between oppression and suppression against the law. In Mother, the law is an obstacle that conflicts with motherly love, which is suppressed until the law finally breaks with the power of love and obsession. Poetry, however, portrays the case where the law is upheld and the mother figure dies, unable to perform her social role when encountered by the law. Although both films associate the law with men, it is ultimately the women who fight against the real law of morals, ethics, and code. The mother is suppressed by the corrupted law that tries to convince her to lose the case by taking the easy route and is also suppressed by the correct law that tries to convince her to accept her son’s sin. The grandmother is also suppressed by these two kinds of law but is also suppressed by her own social law of unconditional, motherly love. Such unconditional love is not a factor of struggle for the mother, though, as it truly becomes the trigger and power of oppression against all laws. No matter how much lonely she becomes, she dedicates all of her love and energy and time into saving her son. Her excessive love for her son ultimately brings her triumph against the law itself, but in the end, it is revealed that the mother has made an extremely significant sacrifice as a mother figure that almost strips her heart completely bare. Not only does she become a criminal herself, but as the son finds out about her crime, the mother also loses her wish and reputation to become a good, caring mother with no devilish façade.
The grandmother, in contrast, allows herself to become suppressed by the correct law, sacrificing her unconditional love for her grandson and eventually sacrificing her life to display the one last ray of such love. Just as the most difficult step of writing a poem is to actually commit oneself to writing a poem, the most difficult step of the grandmother’s sacrifice of her love and grandson has been to actually accept the fact that the grandson has sinned. The correct law and justice undoubtedly prevail in Poetry, but it is definitely the unconditional love of the grandmother that helps to produce such a result.
So why is motherhood such an important topic and who is the real mother between the two mother figures of Mother and Poetry? In the last piece of analysis regarding the struggle against the law and morals, it is evident that regardless of which power wins, the mother has always made some sort of sacrifice in order to save her son, or grandson. The power and strength of motherhood are beyond imagination; one mother figure is fearless and bold enough to reach the level of violence for her son while the other mother figure is thoughtful and intelligent enough to wholeheartedly teach the most ethical lesson to her son and finally sacrifice her entire life for the good of her son. Regardless of the law, morals, realism, idealism, or catharsis of any sort, a mother is a powerful human being who exists everywhere in society and deserves much more appreciation and respect. Thus, motherhood is an important social element that must be intensively discussed in order to not only understand the society as a whole but also understand people as each individuals as well as members of a family. Both mothers of Mother and Poetry, in spite of their adherence to realism and idealism, respectively, still represent the image of a real mother in one way or another: a mother who refuses to believe her child’s sin; a mother who struggles between forgiveness and punishment for her child; a mother who refuses to reveal her devilish face to her child; and a mother who refuses to become a burden to her child. They are all mothers—mothers of reality, mothers of idealism, mothers of society, and mothers of fantasy. All are thus the faces of motherhood of the past, present, and future.