Mother: A Definition (Review of the Korean drama)

Most great stories are based around simple concepts or trying to answer what one would think are simple questions. The Korean drama Mother, a remake of a Japanese show of the same title, attempts to define a mother. Who is a mother? On a surface level, it’s an easily answered question: It’s the woman who gave birth to you, whose egg was fertilized with your father’s sperm to create, well, you.

Mother probes a bit further, insinuating that a true mother is a woman who acts like a mother, biology aside. To go on this journey, the writers stay firmly within the world of women. There are few questions of fathers here, and their absence silently and continually accuses them.

Starring the everywoman Lee Bo Young (God’s Gift: 14 Days), Ko Sung Hui (While You Were Sleeping) as the biological mother, and introducing a very talented Heo Yeol as a horribly abused child Hye Na, Mother is an emotional roller coaster ride, almost to the point of overkill, that nevertheless offers up very real moral dilemmas in the process. Unquestionably Heo carries the show, as often children do in their first projects, but she is given a definite run for her money as we get to know the mothers who started the chain of events leading to the main story, especially aging actress Young Sin (played by the indomitable Lee Hye Young (Boys Over Flowers) and a mother of oh, so many regrets, played by veteran actress Nam Gi Ae. This is one of the few scripts really allows older actresses to test their mettle. The men quietly supporting in the background are unsung hero types, not romantic leads, and the men not supporting, again, are most “visible” in their absence. Their crimes are alluded to or told to us secondhand, but the message of the show is never that the women can or should excuse away their own behavior due to them.

(Spoilers) After a low-key beginning, Mother kicks into high thriller gear once the abuse of Hye Na becomes known to her teacher, Soo Jin (Lee Bo Young) and the teacher becomes frustrated that the social system has nothing in place to immediately protect this little girl. Soo Jin kidnaps Hye Na with the child’s full consent and most of the sixteen episodes focus on the pair’s continual elusion of the authorities who assume that her mother Ja Young (Ko) is truly heartbroken and wants her back. The plot thickens as we and Hye Na begin to learn more about her abductor and the essential back history that has led to this decision.

Here, the story really begins to plumb the depths of the definition of “mother.” We are introduced to several biological mothers all of whom in some way have been abandoned by their men and who either don’t love or don’t seem to love their child or children. This male abandonment is no excuse, as stated before, and it is Young Sin (Lee Hye Young) a self-declared mother who continually speaks to what a mother should be to her children, no matter the circumstances. Young Sin presents motherhood as a daunting responsibility to her daughter Soo Jin, while giving her courage and cheering her on. Protecting, loving, and nurturing, are all spouted as must-haves for any women aspiring to be a mother.

What struck me as being a little hollow in the story, was the fact that most of the mothers in the show were having essentially to be both mother and father. Aside from the couple of supporting men who are vaguely fatherlike at best, these mothers are all stuck with being both provider and protector. Not that women can’t be those things, and not that mothers certainly don’t protect in their own way, but when the father is in the picture, those roles are usually dedicated to him as a basic form of maleness, if you will.

Kang Yi Jin, Soo Jin’s sister is easily the most nurturing, classic mother-type of the women in the story, and she is the only one who has a husband and father in the picture for her children, who, although gone way too much for work, is clearly doing the providing and protecting so she doesn’t have to. Thus, Kang Yi Jin’s femininity is a lot stronger than the other women in the story–she’s more emotional and not as logical, and her focus is on homemaking, cooking meals, and the like. It is only when considering this character that I realized how masculine most of the other women in the story are, especially Soo Jin, and that it is largely due to them having to protect and provide, again roles that would be normally dedicated to a father or father figure, if he was in the picture.

This is where, despite the great, raw emotions pulled out of story, the defining of motherhood doesn’t go far enough. It’s adequate to define women who are indeed still mothers and act as mothers even if the father or a father is not in the picture, but I think the definition of “mother” as it relates to the feminine in particular needs to be both apart from the masculine providing and protecting, and also contrasted to it. To some degree, women have a physical safety radar on all of the time, but if you pay attention to them (or women, if you pay attention to yourself) you may find you act and/or are more in feminine mode when there’s a man on the scene who is or is at least perceived as the protector in the situation. The women, or you, are softer, more relaxed, perhaps more playful, and perhaps more in multi-tasking mode than single-focus male mode. This side of being a mother is woefully neglected on the show, and that is a shame because it is the main “mother” definition to which much of the world relates.

I give the writer props, though, because although Mother never outright says it, the story heavily implies that if the absent fathers had truly been fathers, things might have turned out differently. The only reason this implication can be made is because of the cool nature of women: We adapt. For example, in the absence of a masculine father/protector for either herself or Hye Na, Soo Jin steps not only into a protective and nurturing mother role, but also into that of a protecting and providing father. We do see her behave a little more femininely when she’s around the hunky doctor on the show, but it’s as if she’s trying on a dress. She’s too much in masculine mode for her feminine side to suit her.

All in all, Mother is a great show, exciting and heartbreaking to watch, and even if it doesn’t flesh out the mother definition to my satisfaction, it’s not shy about showing the cycle of abuse and just how awful women can become after being betrayed or abandoned by a man. Hye Na’s biological mother is a pathetic figure, her love for her child hinging not on maternal instinct, but upon keeping any man who will have her, in her life. This woman wouldn’t have been the best mom in the world even if the biological father had stayed and supported her, but she probably wouldn’t have started abusing her child or contemplated suicide. This mother would likely have adapted well to the love and support of a good, strong man, but the show doesn’t really give us enough background into her character to make that a rock-solid certainty. Sometimes parents simply cannot parent and do not have instinctive love for their children. If that doesn’t speak to the existence of evil in the world, I don’t know what does.

It’s far easier to think there must be a reason for the neglect and abuse, that it can be understood in some way, but Young Sin would say there’s no good reason for it. No matter what you’ve been through yourself, there’s no good reason to neglect and/or abuse your child. That message is the takeaway of Mother, and it can apply to either or both sexes, either or both parents. It is a timeless declaration for what kind of person a parent should be.

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