Outsiders wanting in. Christine from Me and You and Everyone We Know and Mother from Mother
At first blush, Mother (2009), a Korean thriller directed by Joon-ho Bong, and Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), an American romantic comedy directed by Miranda July, have very little in common. Perhaps even at second blush they have very little in common. Yet despite living in different corners of the film canon, I found myself having a very similar reaction to both. Twenty minutes into each film, I had the same reaction, this isn’t what I was expecting,and forty minutes in I was thinking, there’s something uncanny about these characters.
My initial reaction may have more to do with marketing than the actual content of the film. Neither quite fits into their respective genres. Dig a little deeper, though, and I think the films have even more in common than category defiance. The characters, themselves, are not quite categorizable either. They are uncanny in that we recognize them as the protagonist(s) of the films, but they don’t quite fit in the role. Under the surface of their narrative story lines, both films are dealing with the abjected.
The abject has been a theme in art and film since Kristeva published her seminal work on the subject in the early eighties. She writes, “the abject has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to the I. If the object, however, through its opposition, settles me with the fragile texture of desire for meaning, which as a matter of fact makes me carelessly and infinitely homologous to it, what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses” (Kristeva, 230). The abject is what is labeled in society as other and cast away, so we—actually, the white, stable, heterosexual male—may develop our own subjectivity. The body becomes a symbolic representation of society, and the waste we expel (feces, spit, menstrual blood, vomit) signifies the abject of society.
Mother is less obviously about the abjected than Everyone We Know. Films, especially those supporting the status quo, tend to mask their ideology under layers of narrative. Before I say any more, I want to add that Mother is a thought-provoking and excellently executed film. The first moments of mother dancing along in an empty field (one of my favorite opening scenes to a film) sets the stage in two ways—first, this is not going to be your typical thriller, and second, this woman here, well, she dances to the beat of her own drum. What follows from this telling (yet, not narrative-relevant) opening the story is Mother who lives with and for her son, Do-joon, who is mentally ill. Despite her weary surveillance, a young girl ends up dead and Do-joon ends up with the blame. When her thieved evidence doesn’t convince the cops and her acupuncture technique doesn’t help Do-joon remember the night, she sets off to find the real murderer.
One particularly memorable scene begins with Mother chopping herbs, her fingers inching closer and closer to the blade while watching her Do-joon through the frame of the door. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times writes of this scene, “The dim interior and bright exterior only accentuate his body — the daylight functions as a kind of floodlight — which puts into visual terms the idea that he is the only thing that Mother really sees.” And yet the scene tells us more than that. As a car drives by and slams into Do-joon, Mother slices her finger in the blade. The two are bound together tightly, so tightly, in fact, that by the end of the film, the crime that Do-Joon has committed, Mother will have committed as well.
This binding is where abjection begins to play its role in the film. According to Kristeva, the need to abject stems from the incest taboo. In order for the mentally stable male to define himself as an ‘I,’ he must abject, or break his bond with, his mother in order “to ward off the subject’s fear of his very own identity sinking irretrievably into [her]” (Kristeva, 254). Time and time again Do-joon is ridiculed for sleeping in the same bed as his mother. Because Do-joon is seen as other he is an easy scapegoat for the murder. Already on the outskirts of society, he is barred, literally and figuratively, from joining society.
One of the biggest criticisms about Kristeva’s theory when applied to art is that it only reaffirms instead of breaking down the status quo. While Mother may be doing some interesting things with narrative and cinematography, its ideology remains firmly planted in the norm. We discover that Do-joon is no scapegoat, that he really did commit murder, and Mother is no innocent either. In trying to protect Do-joon she herself kills a man—an outsider, at that (the abjected still abject others). Do-joon goes free (with another mentally ill man taking his place), but we are shown that we are right to abject these characters. Our initial repulsion is right.
While Everyone We Know is about a very different subject matter than Mother, it too deals with the abjected. The film follows a cast of characters, all just a little outside of “normal”—quirky, if you will—as they make and break connections with one another. July has a very different spin on the abjected, than Bong. If the reviews are any indication, July successfully breaks down the paradigm of the abjected.
Nearly every review I read applied the world “delightful” to the cast of characters or the film itself. Roger Ebert of the Sun Times writes “The MPAA gave it an R rating, ‘for disturbing sexual content involving children,’ but the one thing it isn’t is disturbing.” That would be all well and good if the characters were all wholeheartedly delightful. To some extent they are delightful, but there is also something uncanny about them—delightful but not quite right. Every character has a creepy quirk. Christine (played by July herself), a struggling artist and old-folk taxi driver, practically stalks Richard, a newly divorced father of two, in her attempts to get him to call her. Richard sets his hand ablaze in front of his children. Andrew, a shoe store salesman, leaves sexual messages taped to his window for the two teenage girls who flirted with him. The list goes on and on. Yet, despite these uncomfortable (dare I say, repulsive) quirks, the characters are all endearing. Instead of being disgusted by these abject characters as the theory of abjection dictates, we are drawn into them. We relate to them rather than distancing ourselves from them—the opposite of what our response ought to be to the abject.
Although only a peripheral character, the gallery curator provides an excellent case study of the ideological workings of the film. In one telling scene, she flips through a slideshow of potential artists when she comes across Christine’s work. She and her assistant have the following exchange:
“Is she of color?”
“No. But she’s a woman.”
Christine is not other-enough to be accepted into the gallery (at first at least—her strange behavior on the later portion of the tape eventually convinces the gallery curator to select her video work). This is an interesting role reversal where the trait of being on the outside is necessary to become an insider. The abject is reclaimed as the subject.
In another key scene, Robby, Richard’s young son starts an Internet flirtation with an anonymous chatter, telling her he wants to “poop back and forth, forever.” Although this may seem like a throwaway gag, this line could probably sum up the ideology of the entire film. If feces represent the abject—as they often do—then this scene tells that the abject is kept within, not forced outside the confines of society. We all feel abjected and we all abject others at various points. The abjected are never really pushed outside of society. We are all a society of others.
While Mother is undoubtedly a fantastic film, when considered in terms of abjection it supports the complaints that abject art only reaffirms societal constructs. Do-joon and his mother did really commit those crimes and our tendency to recoil from the abjected is reaffirmed. Me and You and Everyone We Know, however, endears us to the abjected, and brings into light how we are all abjecting and abjected—one and the same.
Since I can’t find a link to Kristeva’s article here is the citation:
Kristeva, Julia. “Powers of Horror.” The Portable Kristeva. Ed. Kelly Oliver. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. 229-64.