Portraying Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Primary Caretakers in Mother (2009)
In Mother (2009), we follow the small town misadventures of an aged mother in her quest to find justice for her autistic son, Yoon Do-Joon (Won Bin), whom she believes has been wrongly convicted for the murder of a local high school girl. This rather negative portrayal of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders, including their larger social implications, is what we will be discussing at length throughout the article.
In this film, South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, who has garnered worldwide renown for his recent Academy Awards win, employs similar narrative devices and shots from his previous murder-mystery, Memories of Murder (2003). He does this by showcasing a game of cat and mouse in a homicide case, complete with police incompetence and public apathy in an idyllic small town where the slow lives of farmers collide with the hubbub dailies of factory workers.
The film opens with a scene of Mother (Kim Hye-Ja) chopping herbs in her dimly lit traditional medicine store, all while keeping a close eye on Yoon Do-Joon (Won Bin) across the street. He is distracted by a passing dog, caring little about anything else in his surroundings, including how close Mother comes to chopping off her own fingers because she too is preoccupied with staring at and worrying for Do-Joon. Her worries came true almost immediately when a car barely nicked him, and Mother immediately cut her finger to the point of needing stitches.
This scene sets the tone of their relationship. Known throughout the film simply as Mother, her name was never revealed to emphasise her character’s almost singular motivation, a woman who thinks she needs to repent for whatever sins she committed to having appointed her to be the autistic Do-Joon’s mother. She does this by being his primary and only caretaker to the point of compulsive obsession as she sees Do-Joon as an inalienable extension of herself. Mother spends most of her time and energy caring for Do-Joon, and even when she is not doing this, she runs her shop to pay for Do-Joon’s various needs. Mother does, however, have interests that do not revolve around her son, she loves to dance to 1960s Hong-Kong music, the likes that you’ll hear today in Wong Kar-Wai’s films. Although we will only see her do this at moments of total resignation, moments where she deems Do-Joon’s case as totally helpless and that even she, his mother, cannot do anything to save him.
Immediately after the opening scene, we see how Do-Joon is perceived by other people in his community: his best friend Jin-Tae (Jin Goo) sees him as a quick scapegoat for his various mischiefs; little kids see him as the town freak and mock him to his face; adults do the same thing behind his back. He has the sympathy of a few characters who know Mother more intimately, such as the next door photocopy shop owner lady—who often drops by for conversations, or the town’s lead police detective, who is also their regular customer.
Despite his Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a form of the neurodevelopmental disorder that hinders him from interacting with society, that presents itself through his lack of emotional control, limited speech, memory, and attention span, Do-Joon is portrayed to have the same desires as any other boy of his age around town. He gets into fistfights over simple and shallow reasonings, he gets drunk with his best friend, he ogles girls, and he especially hates being called a “retard”. He is also portrayed and depicted to be especially “pretty”—more good-looking than most boys from his town—which makes him somewhat popular among women and high school girls, and even the next door lady remarks how she hopes her yet-to-be-born son would have half of his good looks.
With these character traits being gradually revealed to the audience, the film’s climax where it was revealed that indeed Do-Joon had murdered the girl on the spur of the moment, did not come as an immediate surprise. Moon Ah-Jung (Moon Hee-Ra), the murdered girl, was frightened after he had followed her into a dark alley out of curiosity and sinister lust. Within a fearful state in that dim alley, Ah-Jung called Do-Joon a retard in an attempt to frighten him off, which, of course, compels him instead into a fit of rage and accidentally killed her by throwing a boulder which struck her head. The word “retard” has provoked strong emotions and reactions from Do-Joon before in the film, such as when someone in prison called him that hateful moniker as a dare and Do-Joon proceeded to drop kick the man. Ah-Jung’s death was the thematic culmination of those foreshadowings.
Before the film’s climax, we followed Mother’s research of Ah-Jung’s life in hope of finding the ‘real’ killer. This direction was taken due to Jin-Tae’s amateur detective skills, who with full conviction proclaimed, “Women only get murdered for three things: money, passion, and power! We have to look for men in Ah-Jung’s life who have these motives to find the killer!” What Mother had discovered was that Ah-Jung, a good-looking and somewhat popular high-school girl, had been selling her body to make ends meet. Ah-Jung had initially been sent to the town for education by her parents, who lived in an even poorer village. She was supposed to be under the custody of her Grandmother, who turns out is suffering from what appears to be another form of a neurodevelopmental disorder, Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). This disorder caused her to constantly forget both small and large details of her life, regressing to naive behaviour (unable to control emotions), and developing an alcohol addiction as her coping mechanism. All of this makes her barely able to make ends meet for herself, and submitting Ah-Jung, with all her limitations as a high-school-aged girl—with little to no qualifications, to step up and also be her Grandmother’s primary caretaker.
This juxtaposition of character motivations, between Mother caring for Yoon Do-Joon and Moon Ah-Jung caring for Grandmother, is the core of Bong Joon-Ho’s exploration into the relationship between those suffering from neurodevelopmental disorders and their primary caretakers. He did so by painting them as what Professor James Hynes from the University of Iowa describes to be rounded characters in his book “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips & Techniques”. Rounded characters are fictional characters with multiple traits, who go beyond the stereotypes of their assigned roles in an attempt to mimic complex characters and the unpredictable course of action that occurs in reality.
Both Yoo Do-Joon and Grandmother are portrayed to be more than just their neurodevelopmental disorders. Do-Joon has ASD, which makes him naive, but also he is a young boy as all young boys are, in the way that they are coming to terms with the different states of the world, exploding with emotions that are colliding with shifting hormones, having sexual desires and also a growing need to feed their ego. Grandmother, on the other hand, has AD, and later in the film, she had forgotten altogether that Ah-Jung had died and expected her to return home from school. Grandmother is also naive, she has no filter in saying out loud what is on her mind, but still, she has a great capacity for emotional maturity, she did not cry during Ah-Jung’s funeral and still served as a rock for her grieving family, a recognized matriarch that goes so far as talking sense into her family and keeping Mother safe from being mauled when she decided to show up to Ah-Jung’s funeral and proclaim her son’s innocence.
Bong Joon-Ho’s choice to juxtapose ASD with AD is also no coincidence, medically, as elaborated by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), the two are recognized as neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders. They are caused by the presence of similar proteins in the brain that leads to different growths of brain tissue, both conditions also manifest themselves through similar symptoms. According to AAN, however, ASD differs from AD in how their brains were developed differently since birth, which gives them distinct abilities in learning and perceiving the world. In AD, the patient’s brains were once fully mature, whether neurodivergent or neurotypical and then regressed back to a pre-maturity—naive stage, hindering their ability to live their fullest lives as society would otherwise dictate. This allows us to now recognise persons with ASD as neurodivergent and not those with neurodevelopmental disorders. There is no disorder since there was never any so-called “order” to begin with, “order” of brain development has been strictly a societal construct.
Neurodiversity research now shows a wide spectrum of ASD, making it more common than it was previously perceived. Everyone is part of the neurodiversity community, consisting of the neuro-typical and the neuro-typical passing, the majority that is able to integrate into societal norms. And there are also the neurodivergent, those whose brain developments are not considered the majority. Neurodiversity is now a term and movement that as outlined by Scientific American and is being championed by the ASD community to fight the stigma they face from being differently-abled in society.
On top of his portrayal of persons with ASD & AD, Bong Joon-Ho highlights their need to sometimes have caretakers to help them lead full enriched lives in society, and especially how the role of these caretakers tend to be assigned to women, entangling the issue with the systemic oppression of women in a patriarchal world. South Korea itself has had a particularly unfortunate history of misogyny. One evidence is the 2022 election of anti-feminist President Yoon Suk-yeol who has cruised on waves and waves of feminist demonization. Propelled by a highlight competitive education and workforce, feminism in South Korea is considered a dirty word by many of South Korea’s young men, equating the movement’s values with misandrism and gender based violence towards men.
Bong Joon-Ho attempts to turn the tables with Mother (2009). He makes sure that women are the cornerstones of the film’s narrative to highlight the injustices that they face. Never once was there a mention of the word Father in the film, women were firmly affixed in their role as sole and only caretakers. Throughout the film, what had happened to Do-Joon’s father was never discussed, only Ah-Jung’s mother and other women in her family were shown grieving at her funeral. The father of the lady next door’s yet-to-be-born baby is never brought up, and even the bar owner who turns away a drunken Do-Joon is both a woman and a mother.
The male figures in Mother (2009): the town’s lead police detective, Do-Joon’s lawyer, and Jin-Tae, are portrayed to care only to a certain extent, as long as it benefits them or only until it becomes too much of an inconvenience for them. This is seen in how early in the film the detective stood up for Do-Joon after his petty crime, yet he was quick to dismiss Mother’s pleas to re-open Do-Joon’s case investigation, practically saying that he has better things to do. The same goes for Do-Joon’s lawyer who only accepted the case for quick cash and only thought of Mother’s convictions in his spare time. While Jin-Tae, Do-Joon’s ‘best friend’, only paid significant attention and offered his assistance after Mother paid him handsomely, enough to buy himself a new car. Men in Mother (2009) have the freedom to choose not to care. Bong Joon-Ho took care to highlight how the patriarchy dictates that caring is a job for women, a hard and meagerly paid job.
For the two lead women of the film—Mother and Moon Ah-Jung—the price they have to pay for not having the option to not care is to live in a kill-or-be-killed world. Mother killed the only eye witness of Ah-Jung’s murder to ensure that Do-Joon is set free, caring more about his future than she does of her own. While Ah-Jung, moments before her death, had a verbal spat with Do-Joon in order to quickly get back to Grandmother and ended up paying for it with her life. These are the tragic fates of women caretakers that Bong Joon-Ho calls attention to in this film. To further emphasize their inability to choose not to care, Mother made the decision that keeping Do-Joon locked up anywhere away from her is simply not the right decision, despite Do-Joon’s lawyer’s insistence that the best-case scenario for the case would be four years in a psychiatric ward as opposed to 15 years to life in prison. Mother did not see that those four years in a hospital would do both him and her good, or how it would have allowed him to receive professional care that she could not provide and give her a much-needed break to explore herself and her own desires.
Put this film side by side with the ending proposed by Canadian filmmaker, Xavier Dolan, in Mommy (2014). Mommy (2014) follows another single mother, Diane Després, who has her own violent son suffering from one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders, ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder). The film follows Diane as she, with the help of a caring next door woman, tries to adapt her son to normal suburban life outside of a care centre. At the end of the film, Diane accepts defeat and returns her son to the facility, where he will receive the care she is not able to provide on her own. Though Mother (2009) has the same option, she lives in a different society, one where patriarchy takes a stronger grip, resulting in her having internalized those values and is unable to see past it.
On top of it all, there is the issue of normalized violence towards women. Seen in the scene where the film’s two “beautiful” leads collided, Do-Joon and Ah-Jung. Do-Joon’s exaggerated violence had been commended to a certain degree thus far, the general sentiment towards his antics had been “It’s just boys being boys,” meanwhile Ah-Jung’s quiet violence, taking promiscuous photographs of the men she has sexual encounters with for her safety, is seen by other characters instead of as subversive and threatening. At the end, it is Do-Joon’s violence that proves to be hostile, while Ah-Jung is shown to have attempted to take precaution in how those photographs are stored, ensuring that they will never be leaked even after her death.
Ultimately, Mother (2009) presents us with an overarching dilemma: is it worth it to portray those with ASD as violent criminals in order to present them as complex human beings, all while risking further stigmatisation of an already vulnerable community? I will now attempt to lay my case for Mother (2009) and say that yes, within the strict walls that confine the film’s narrative, Mother (2009) is a somewhat commendable portrayal of ASD. This is because Mother (2009) is not a story about a criminal who commits a crime due to his ASD, it is the story of a mother to a boy with ASD, whom she believes requires her constant care due to her upbringing in a patriarchal society, the very same society which propelled the boy to commit gender-based violence after a lifetime of having his violent and toxic masculinity glorified. Mother (2009) is a story about the systemic oppression of women, and the caretaking mask it wears in society.
Still, the dilemma of the representation of neurodivergent peoples in Mother (2009) is something that can only be answered rightfully by those of the ASD community. For autistic Japanese visual artist, Amane Aoyama (featured on https://akibi-picnic.jp/), Mother (2009) shows a rare and encouraging outlook by presenting good looking neuro-diverse people, however, the overall context of the film makes her question if it was necessary to have Do-Joon’s character as autistic at all. “I feel like we’re not at that stage in society where people will understand the point made. I’m just thinking like in music, the movie that Sia made, not about the backlash it got but how something with such a crazy amount of misinformation could even be made in 2021.” Aoyama weighs in.
Therefore it would not be too outlandish to say that there are alternative archetypes available in order to help Mother (2009) deliver its main message. Ones that would not put vulnerable groups at risk of further discrimination. The bond between a single mother and a son from a similar societal background, a mother who has no other next of kin and has been alienated from society at large, who sees their son as almost an extension of themselves, could perhaps deliver the same narrative.