Mother puts women at the centre of its conversation and in the process, the choices they make liberate them from patriarchy construct of female identities without having to demonise men
I almost forgot how fantastic this drama is until I stumbled upon its rerun just recently. Mother is one of a very few dramas/movies that challenges primordial female identity. Based on Japanese drama of the same title, the drama also placed women at the centre of its grand narrative, detaching itself almost entirely from real-life dictating patriarchy.
When Soo Jin (Lee Bo Young), a temporary elementary school teacher, realises that one of her students Hye Na (Heo Yool) is being abused at home by her family, she makes an impulsive decision to rescue Hye Na and in doing so, she decides to become her “mother”.
Not until I explore the works of Hirokazu Koreeda, did I realise the dire situation of child abandonment in Japan. It is the third largest type of child abuse in the country. Police reported record-high 80,104 cases of suspected child abuse across Japan in 2018. While in South Korea, the number reached 10,647 in the first half of 2017.
Koreeda has repeatedly brought these issues to light in some of his works, most notably are Nobody Knows (2004), which is based on a real-life child abandonment known as the “Sugamo child abandonment case” and Shoplifters (2018).
Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows (2004) & Shoplifters (2008)
One of Koreeda’s signature themes is his constant questioning of society constructs. “What makes a family?” is a perennial theme that keeps on appearing in most of his works. Mother feels like a derivative or a fragment of that theme, challenging the notion of motherhood.
In unfair competitions of capitalistic society, those considered to be economically less valuable, hence weaker, are the first to be eliminated from the cutthroat competition. When this condition occurs in a patriarchal society, it is women who are likely being the first to be sacrificed, then children. Patriarchal society creates unrealistic demands towards women. Even when married women work in non-domestic workplace, they still are required not only to perform domestic and childcare duties, but also to care for aging relatives.
Shin Ja Young (Go Sung Hee), Hye Na‘s biological mother, is a product of this cruel condition. Unable to stand on her own, she thought she finally found liberation in a man, Seol Ak (Son Seok Koo). She creates an illusion of escaping misery only to find out later that it won’t happen. Trapped between desperation and illusion, Ja Young, along with her abusive boyfriend, abandons Hye Na. Ja Young seems to suffer from post-partum depression and she keeps blaming Hye Na for her miserable life until the end. Rather than creating monsters out of these damaged and deranged parents, Mother also reveals the intertwined social factors behind their abusive actions, though still not justifies them.
(Writer’s note: Though eight years apart since the original version aired, this case bears an eerie resemblance to Ja Young – Hye Na – Seol Ok’s part of the story.)
Soo Jin (Lee Bo Young) & Hye Na (Heo Yool)
Unlike many real-life child abuse and abandonment cases which end in tragedy, Hye Na was quite lucky to be found by Soo Jin, outside in the cold winter night, inside a black garbage bag. From then on, Soo Jin and Hye Na (and consequently people around them) embark on a journey to find a safe haven, and eventually the meaning of “mother” (and family). Soo Jin refuses to be a bystander despite her disinterest in marriage and forming a family of her own (initially), even if that makes her a criminal.
When Soo Jin was asked why she did not turn to the police or the authorities for help, she replied “Hye Na needed immediate protection. And I didn’t want Hye Na to have to explain what happened to her multiple times, to strangers.” This indicates a criticism towards governmental and children related (such as school and welfare centre) institutions’ failure to notice signs of child abuse and negligence in handling child abuse reports which often times lead to horrifying consequences.
Mother puts women at the centre of its conversation and in the process, the choices they make liberate them from patriarchy construct of female identities without having to demonise men. From Soo Jin and Hye Na, to Young Sin (Lee Hye Young) and Nam Hong-Hee (Nam Gi Ae), both are Soo Jin’s mothers, to Hyun Jin (Go Byo Geol), Soo Jin’s sister; each and every one of them takes ownership of their own lives. While men around them; Jae Beom (Lee Jung Yeol), Young Sin’s personal (and family) assistant and Jin Hong (Lee Jae Yoon), a doctor who was initially introduced to Soo Jin as a potential partner; serve as part of the Kang family support system. They are around, help when needed, but never intervened. It is a utopian idea indeed, but probably needed to keep the hope and dream alive.
Hye Na (Heo Yool) & Young Sin (Lee Hye Young)
The show is graced with strong performances from all of its actors, but it is undoubtedly Heo Yool, who was selected among 400 other audition participants, who steals the spotlight as a resilient child fighting life’s cruelty. She displays the psychological impact of a child-abuse victim in an impressive array of emotions.
TV shows sees patriarch in power all the time, but rarely a matriarch in power. Young Sin (Lee Hye Young) is one those very few. She is divorced, then she adopted and raised children on her own. As a star actress who gained fame and fortune on her own, she can afford not to care about society’s opinion and social stigma. Lee Hye Young and Heo Yool show a beautiful and heartwarming relationship between two strangers who decided to become a family.
In a nation where blood ties are presumed to be the base of every nuclear family, much like Kore-eda’s movie, Mother also demonstrates that there are many alternatives to a family (or in this case, mother) and none of them is abnormal as long as there is love and care.