"The cheapest whore in Korea.
7$ for 15 minutes.
$5 for extra 15 mins."
Sang-woo (played by director Lee Sang-woo) has lived alone with his mother (Lee Yong-nyeo) in a tiny, dilapidated shack on the outskirts of the local village, ever since his parents split up and his father, Jeong-il (Kwon Beom-taek), began a relationship with a younger woman. Suffering from AIDS and with no legitimate means of income, Sang-woo pimps his mother out as a prostitute to all and sundry in the surrounding area - no matter whether they be young, old, healthy or even disabled - advertising her as "the cheapest whore in Korea".
By contrast, Sang-woo's father (who is disgusted by the life that Sang-woo leads and by his perceived exploitation of his mother) appears to the local community to be a fine, upstanding family man whose primary focus is caring and providing for the new woman in his life and her children from a previous marriage, but, as we are soon to discover, outward perceptions can be deceptive...
Themes relating to classic familial ideals within Korean society - the importance of a stable, happy family unit to both individuals and society as a whole; the consequences of a breakdown of familial values; the devastation caused by rogue elements or those who choose to live outside the norm etc. - have been prevalent in South Korean cinema for almost as long as you could care to mention, and while a fair number of directors have, in recent years, produced works that serve to turn these ideas almost upside down (with critiques and theme dissections resolutely stating that familial situations are rarely as simple as archetypal ideas would suggest, and indeed redefining what constitutes family as a whole), few could be said to take their narrative on as ultimately dark a path as is the case with Mother is a Whore. Lee Sang-woo (who wrote, directed and starred in the film) has no qualms whatsoever on that score, with My Mother is a Whore being an utterly searing, and ultimately vital, independent cinematic work, as gripping as it is deeply unsettling.
When we are first introduced to the character of Sang-woo, he is about to carry a disabled man on his back to have sex with his mother, and he initially appears to be exactly the kind of foul-mouthed (repeatedly spitting out his mantra "You're fu*king driving me crazy"), bitter and self-serving individual we'd expect a man who is willing to pimp out his mother to be. However, as we gradually get to know him, it becomes blatantly clear that beneath the gruff and largely closed exterior he shows to the outside world, there lies a man who truly loves his mother (and vice versa) and feels increasingly frustrated that she has to be involved in prostitution in order for them to survive - even though she claims to adore her job.
Outside the norms of society their lives certainly are, but their relationship is, nonetheless (or even, perhaps, because of that very fact), easily the strongest and most stable of all those in My Mother is a Whore.
Conversely, the outwardly 'normal' lives of Sang-woo's father and his new family are the absolute antithesis of those of Sang-woo and his mother, serving to underline the idea that just because something appears wholesome from a cursory glance, doesn't mean it can't be rotten at its very core.
However, director Lee Sang-woo thankfully isn't content to stop there and, from the very outset of Mother is a Whore, a number of characters, scenes and situations turn out, in reality, to be far removed from their initial appearance. As such, the above ideas are further accented and added to these are repeated references to the consequences of individuals' self-serving needs and actions that are both at the expense of those around them as well as being to the detriment of the greater good as a whole.
Even the overall film itself could be said to morph as the narrative progresses - laced early on with an underlying dark humour (greatly helped by a gentle, almost playful, musical score) that deftly belies its eventual true darkness.
Make no mistake, My Mother is a Whore is ultimately not an easy watch by any stretch of the imagination, but regardless of how disturbing proceedings become on more than one occasion, those who like bleak narratives that have something truly worthy to say will find it utterly impossible to turn away, even for a moment.
As a final note, Mother is a Whore was actually made back in 2009 with a release only finally granted in 2011. Considering the subject of the narrative and the context within which the majority of violence and sex occurs in the film, that will likely come as little surprise.
However, I for one am really glad it did get an eventual official release and wait with baited breath for future projects from Lee Sang-woo.
The entire cast of Mother is a Whore give superb performances throughout - from the main players right to the most passing supporting roles. Each provides exactly what is required exactly when it is needed, and though it could be said that such a superbly well-written script makes the actors’ jobs easier to a certain degree, to my mind at least, not a single criticism is warranted by any of their portrayals whatsoever.
Lee Sang-woo, Lee Yong-nyeo, Kwon Beom-taek, Yoo Ae-kyeong
With its intelligently written and deftly executed narrative, Mother is a Whore serves not only as a searing, bleak and unsettling tale but also as an in-depth critique of the concept of family.