Though I’d been planning on watching Mother for a while, I’d heard and seen through the previews that it was some heavy hitting stuff. Many viewers voiced their need to have the tissue box prepared at all times. Truthfully I’m not a crier when it comes to dramas (or any media), and though I have moments where I’m stirred, moved or touched by tragic or heartwarming scenes, my eyes generally stay pretty dry. That being said, I was a bit hesitant about picking this one up because I wanted to watch it at a moment when I was emotionally ready. While I admit that I personally didn’t shed any tears while watching this drama, it was certainly an emotionally strenuous watch. In fact, this was one of the most expressive and poignant works I have ever watched. I concur with other viewers on the sentiment that most people will probably need those tissues on hand. I will say that I have not seen the original Japanese drama, which the Korean version is based upon, so I will only be touching upon the Korean version in this review, without making any sort of comparisons.
[Be Forewarned: Spoilers Below]
Potentially Triggering Content: A quick warning to those who may be potentially triggered by the topics and situations covered in this drama—I saw various comments from a number of viewers, who watched/tried watching this drama, voicing their regret about not being fully aware beforehand of just how dark the show would be. I figure I can at least issue a warning here and now, so that at the very least, anyone who reads this prior to taking the plunge will have a better idea of what they’re getting themselves into before it’s too late. This drama doesn’t shy away from depicting ghastly scenes of abuse—among them includes: the child being thrown out/tied up in a trash bag in the dead of winter, the child being forced to sleep in a zipped suitcase, the child being brutally choked by her uncle, a woman getting her finger sliced off, etc. Aside from scenes of abuse, there are also heavy topics such as cancer, death, and grieving covered in the show. It’s really important to prioritize your mental health. If you are/were a victim of abuse or any kind of violence and feel that watching it on screen could be traumatic, please put yourself first and spare yourself the discomfort. You don’t have to have been a victim either, as this content has the potential to be upsetting to anyone. Hope this can help prevent anyone who needs it from having the same experience as the viewers I mentioned above.
Draggy Second Half: I found the first half of this drama to be much more thrilling and engaging than the second half. After around the halfway point, things kind of became a bit redundant and less suspenseful. It was a bit frustrating to watch the plot go in circles, and I think the excessive amount of filler material became the leading contributor to this issue. This drama does suffer from increasing filler as the episodes progress and while some of this filler was cute or endearing at times, it mostly got old pretty quickly and became more of a nuisance rather than a comfort. Another problem area for me was the episode span of the drama. There is no doubt in my mind that a few chunks of the plot and or filler could have been chopped out in order to become a fourteen, or even twelve episode drama, without losing any important details nor the heart of the story. Sixteen felt a bit like beating a dead horse. While I appreciated the final two episodes greatly, there were a few episodes leading up to it that I felt could have been nixed, or at least most of their content done away with, to result in a more concise and less tedious watch. However, nothing’s perfect, so I commend the show for what it is, even if I felt it lost a little bit of its balance and focus in the second half.
Hinted Romance/Dr. Jung: Listen, Dr. Jung was harmless, and actually seemed to be one of the rare character gems in a k-drama where the male isn’t a total asshole or a pretend nice guy for his own secretive benefits. I also loved that he wasn’t this overwhelming presence and rather than overshadowing the ladies, was merely a complement to them. However, as much as I found doctor Jung likable, pure, and endearing… I felt his character was unnecessary, and probably the only character in the entire show that felt like a mere throwaway. He seemed to pop in only for the sake of the plot when Soo Jin was in trouble with no one else to turn to. He was essentially serving as a neutral helper that could aid Soo Jin, apart from her adoptive and biological families. The awkward and forced romantic vibes that the writers tried to strum up between them were hard to watch, especially toward the end, where she ultimately appears to stick with her decision not to get involved with him. I feel they could have done without him and had another character operate as her helped instead.
Excellent Cast: A large part of what made this show so successful was its stellar cast. Lee Hye Young put on an extraordinary performance as Cha Young Shin, Soo Jin’s adoptive mother. The veteran managed to flawlessly balance the multifaceted nature of her character, effortlessly shifting from graceful and elegant to earnest and emotional. Alongside Lee Hye Young, was Nam Gi Ae as Nam Hong Hee, Soo Jin’s biological mother. Nam Gi Ae left me speechless with her deeply poignant depiction of a mother who became forced to abandon her child in order to give her a safer living environment and improved quality of life. Both of these ladies really moved me in ways that no other actor or actress has been able to move me before. You could really empathize and understand both characters’ points of view and the actresses were not afraid to dig deep and express the grittiness that comes hand in hand with loss, sorrow, regret and motherhood. I am convinced that these roles couldn’t have been pulled off by anyone else, and that their portrayals had a strong influence on why these two characters ended up becoming my two favorites.
Heo Yool deserves the biggest round of applause I can possible give. I have never seen a child perform at the level that she did, and with such class and maturity. The gravity and dark nature of the role she was given were already challenging and emotionally taxing, but this child pulled them off convincingly and respectfully. I have no idea how she managed to handle it all at that age. These are subjects that even adults would have a troublesome time coping with, so to see a child manage to pull it off so successfully was an amazing feat. Not only that, but there were so many layers to her character. Hye Na/Yoon Bok was one of the most complex characters I’ve seen in a while, but Heo Yool nailed each facet with ease. I am truly looking forward to seeing more performances from her in the future.
I was pleasantly surprised to see Jo Han Chul appear as a detective in this show. I think he’s a fantastic and underrated actor, so it’s always a pleasure to see him on my screen. Things were no different here, seeing as I completely bought into his role as the hungry, relentless, and determined detective. This was my first time seeing Son Seok Koo on my screen, but he did not disappoint as disturbing Uncle Seol Ak. He easily gave me the heebee jeebies and pulled off the wickedness of his role well. I was a bit surprised at how early on his character died, but somewhat relieved to see that he wasn’t just some unexplained psychopath; his own trauma filled childhood brought out the murderer and abuser in him. Obviously I don’t condone, nor forgive his despicable actions, but I always feel a little better knowing there was a reason behind such appalling behavior, rather than having to settle for some sort of “just because” situation.
I’ve seen Go Sung Hee in a few unimpressive dramas (take SPY for example), so I wasn’t sure what to expect from her in this role. However, I felt she captured the selfish, desperate and dependent nature of her character quite well. Ja Young was a woman who stuck to Seol Ak like glue. It didn’t matter that he was a murderer as long as he could provide her with company, financial, and emotional support. In exchange, she was willing to overlook his past crimes and abusive nature. She was also willing to cast her daughter aside, even allow her to be murdered. Ja Young put her own happiness above her daughter’s but she failed to realize that she was clueless as to what true happiness really was.
Ironically, the only character I struggled to connect with was Soo Jin, not because of the writing, but because of Lee Bo Young‘s performance. I’ll start off by saying Lee Bo Young has always been hit or miss for me. I admittedly haven’t seen much of her work, but the few pieces I have seen of her were mediocre to average at best (in my humble opinion). Now, before anyone tries using her character’s nature as an excuse to combat my statements, I’d like to promptly nip that in the bud. There are plenty of characters out there who share some of Soo Jin’s character traits of independence, stoicism, stilted emotion, etc.— Characters whom are acted quite well. As I expressed earlier, it was not her character or the writing that I took issue with, but rather, it was her imbalanced lumbering portrayal. I didn’t find her terrible here, but I didn’t find her compelling either. There were many moments of disconnect, and often the way she delivered her lines felt awkward, bizarre, and in some instances, forced. That’s not to say she didn’t have a few shining moments, because I believe she did, especially in some of the most emotional scenes. My issue lies in that she wasn’t consistent, and there were several moments where I just couldn’t connect; or rather, she couldn’t connect. In other words, I simply wasn’t convinced in the way that I was while watching the likes of Lee Hye Young and Nam Gi Ae. No hate to Lee Bo Young, as I still appreciated her performance, but it’s just an observation of my own that I felt was worth pointing out.
Thrilling Storyline: I went into this expecting a slow-burn, slice of life, melodrama. Instead, I was greeted with something much more thrilling. I was surprised at how the overall tone of the first episode almost felt like a suspenseful crime show. Not only did it have me on the edge of my seat, but it also managed to showcase some pretty chilling scenes between Uncle Seol Ak and little Hye Na. One thing’s for sure—Mother did not shy away from the gruesome and unforgiving aspects of child abuse.
Female-centric: It’s rare that we find a show led by females, let alone a well-written one. This show follows through with its promise, and delivers by providing us with a story that centers solely on female characters, and incredibly strong ones at that. Sure, there are a few males characters tossed into the mix, but none of them are relevant enough to eclipse the leading ladies. They’re more like side dishes, only there for the purpose of complementing the main dish. This setup works well, and it’s refreshing to be able to watch something that isn’t overrun by males, because we certainly have enough male focused dramas out there to last a lifetime.
Compelling Themes: I love how the story not only examined the journey of just one mother, but many mothers and—as it progressed, it broadened its sphere to include sisters and daughters. And while motherhood was certainly the prevailing theme of the show, other significant themes were thoughtfully explored and reflected upon as well. I think one of the most meaningful points this drama sought to make was the idea that a person can have many mothers, both blood related and otherwise. This certainly reigned true for Soo Jin, who found a mother in Sister Clara, Madam Cha, and her biological mother, Nam Hong Hee. Similarly, Hye Na/Yoon Bok had Ja Young, her foster mother, and Soo Jin. It took a while for both Soo Jin and Yoon Bok to accept this idea, but I think Madam Cha put it best:
“There are people out there who think that one must give birth to a child to be her mother. But a woman becomes a mother…when she gives her all to a smaller creature.” —Cha Young Shin
The struggle of single mothers was one topic the show covered well. Most of the mothers in this show ended up single, but it was how they moved forward and chose to take on their challenges that set them apart. Ja Young decided shacking up with Seol Ak was the best way to go, because it would at least provide her with security and emotional support. Unfortunately, she became too dependent on him and eventually put her own wants and desires before her daughter’s basic needs. Nam Hong Hee did the opposite. Instead of letting her husband continue to beat herself and terrorize Soo Jin, she decided a sacrifice was necessary in order for her daughter to live the best quality of life. Nam Hong Hee tried to prioritize her daughter’s needs over her own, and while her time in jail and failure to properly explain the situation to Soo Jin at that time caused emotional damage to her daughter, it was an understandable, and more noble decision than the choices made by Ja Young. Though Cha Young Shin was also a single mother, she at least had money at her disposal, which not only allowed for her to be independent when raising her daughters, but enabled her to give them a more lavish lifestyle than Ja Young or Nam Hong Hee ever could ever dream of giving their daughters. If there was any one possession that gave Cha Young Shin an edge over the other two mothers, it was financial stability. The other two women had a harder time, because they lacked stability, and therefore were forced to make dire and compromising decisions. Of course, I am not saying that raising three girls on her own wasn’t difficult for Cha Young Shin, but the fact that she had the aid of money was a reason I struggled to agree with the harsh judgements she passed on Nam Hong Hee, all without a willingness to listen to her side of the story. Cha Young Shin does eventually become informed about some of Nam Hong Hee’s reasonings, and had difficulties understanding Nam Hong Hee’s decision. However, towards the end of her life, it was clear to me that she was coming to terms with Nam Hong Hee’s actions, and developing an understanding as to why she was driven to do such a thing.
Along with motherhood comes daughterhood, and it takes Yoon Bok and Soo Jin a long time to figure out how to become daughters to their mothers. Hye Na’s childhood was taken from her at an extremely young age, and she was forced to become as independent as a child can be. When Soo Jin takes her hand and shows her a better picture of what a mother should be like, it takes Yoon Bok a while to adjust and enjoy the pleasures and little things that are all part of being a child. In a similar light, Soo Jin, once reunited with Madam Cha, struggles to be there for her. Soo Jin was already absent from Madam Cha’s life for 10 years, and though we never really understand why, we know that it was difficult on Madam Cha, who was willing to give Soo Jin the world—as she merely wanted to be a part of her daughter’s life. However, as Soo Jin continues to protect Yoon Bok and fight for rights as her mother, she develops a newfound understanding for Madam Cha, and not only realizes all that Madam Cha has done for her, but also discovers what she as a daughter means to Madam Cha. By becoming a mother to Yoon Bok, Soo Jin at last learns what it means to be a daughter.
It was interesting to watch the dynamic between the three sisters develop over time. Yi Jin was initially my least favorite, but she really had a turn around by the end. She had mistaken her mother’s doting on Soo Jin to mean she was less important and harbored bitterness as a result. What she failed to realize was that her mother only gave extra attention to Soo Jin, because unlike her other two daughters, Soo Jin didn’t know when she needed it, or how to even ask for it. Yi Jin comes to terms with the fact that she was also adopted, after realizing that she not only had the motherly love of Cha Young Shin, but her older Soo Jin, who helped protect and raise her as a child. Hyun Jin also abruptly finds out about her adoption, and though she at least has her father Jae Beom once Madam Cha passes, it still proves to be an emotional shock to the youngest of the three sisters. However, Hyun Jin was arguably the most gentle and easygoing of the three, and it isn’t too long before she takes steps to slowly embrace Jae Beom as her father. What I liked about the final episodes was the way these revelations, combined with the loss of Madam Cha, all worked to bring the three sisters together. They realized they may not be blood related, but they are one in the same, in that they were all hand picked by Madam Cha. Losing their mother awakened in them an appreciation for all that she’d done, which in turn led to an appreciation for each other. This became more evident by their increasing number of interactions and the way they seemed to be cherishing each moment together; relying on each other for emotional support after all the trauma they’d endured up until the present.
Abuse and abandonment appeared to be an important pattern in the drama. Nam Hong Hee was forced to give up her child after killing her abusive husband in an act of self defense. Soo Jin grew up with the false assumption that her mother abandoned her without good reason. Seol Ak grew up under the care, or should I say neglect, of an abusive mother and allowed his trauma to overtake him. Consequently, he became a monster who abused and killed the children of women who reminded him of himself and his own mother. Ja Young became a neglectful mother in favor of having a male love interest who could provide her with more stability. She eventually abandoned Hye Na in pursuit of her own selfish desires. So many characters, many of them with similar backgrounds, and yet all of these individuals dealt with their traumas differently, with their decisions serving as the clue to what kind of human beings they were.
Adoption was another relatively large theme in the show. Soo Jin, Yi Jin, Hye Jin, and Yoon Bok were all adopted. The show touches on the complexity of the adoption process, as well as the emotional baggage that can come along with being and adoptive child or an adoptive parent. I thought this was most prominently highlighted by the relationship between Madam Cha, Soo Jin, and Nam Hong Hee. In the beginning it appears as though Soo Jin doesn’t fully accept Madam Cha as her mother. All the while, there is a subconscious hunger in her to reunite with her biological mother. Though she fronts that she doesn’t actually give a damn, it is eventually made clear that she does. Her first meeting with her biological mother consists of a tear filled rage. Madam Cha also harbors immense anger toward Nam Hong Hee. However, all three of them ultimately reconcile by the end, and it is beautiful to watch how this all unfolds. Perhaps the most stirring moment for me in the show was when Nam Hong Hee gifted Madam Cha with the baby clothes and photos of Soo Jin during their meeting. Nam Hong Hee knew that Madam Cha needed those more than anything in that moment, and the gratitude and emotion that Madam Cha exhibits in response is raw as it gets; an extremely beautiful scene.
Exquisite Cinematography: From the very first moment, I was struck by how stunning Mother‘s cinematography was. They obviously had a hefty budget and made use of an expensive lens to shoot this show. The fact that it was filmed by the sea, and involved a significant amount bird imagery, definitely contributed to the endless number of exquisite frames that graced my screen. This was one of those dramas that felt like a high-end movie in terms of visuals. No disappointments in this department. Probably among the top ten most beautifully shot dramas I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.
Solid OST: I have to give the composer a round of applause. For me, it’s always the instrumental tracks that shine most in a drama; and shine here, they did. Most of these instrumental tracks were complementary to their respective scenes, and I found many of them were the key to creating and enhancing the mood in some of the most critically intense and sorrowful moments. My favorite track, hands down, is “Mom, I’m Leaving.” This track is hauntingly beautiful, especially when it climaxes in the last few moments, with the various string instruments building upon each other and achieving a dramatic and dire effect. Some of my other favorites include, “Tears of a Broken Child,” “I did not abandon you,” “Deep Motherly Love,” “Children are not Mothers’ Belongings!,” “Tough Choice,” and “A Kid Wanting to Fly.” I’m usually not a fan of vocal tracks, and that reigned true here. I wasn’t too fond of the vocal tracks and—ironically, I found the main theme, “To You” by Kim Yuna, to be the most annoying when overplayed throughout various episodes of the drama. The song itself is alright and quite beautiful, but they were definitely a bit too heavy handed with it for my tastes.
Despite some minor flaws I took issue with, Mother was one of the most engrossing and expressive dramas I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in a long while. A nice change of pace from the usual k-drama content, the narrative delivers and engaging plot centered upon women and the relationships drawn from motherhood. I can’t remember the last time I managed to binge watch a drama so quickly and consistently within the span of about a week or so. If you can build yourself up for an emotional watch, Mother is a drama I highly recommend, and I strongly believe that it will prove itself worthy of your time.
Did you watch Mother? What did you think of the drama? If you haven’t already, you can check out the extended preview here.