The opening shot of Martin Bargiel’s Augenblicke, seen through the eyes of its main character as he stares vacantly back at his reflection in the distorting mirrored wall of an empty elevator car, may seem a mere matter of cinematic trompe l’oeil, yet it serves as an elegant motif for the film in its entirety, which plays like a dizzying waltz through a carnival’s hall of mirrors in which the disoriented viewer is scarcely able to orientate themselves amidst their new surroundings before being whisked away into another, more sinister sphere of consciousness.
The consciousness in question is that of Schenker who, upon leaving his apartment block one evening, stumbles upon the dead body of a fellow resident who has apparently fallen from one of its high windows. From this seemingly straightforward beginning, the film progresses into a maze of shifting perspectives and time-frames as the increasingly baffled Schenker tries to piece together the preceding events; or have they, in fact, happened at all? Rather than a Rashomon-like meditation on the perspectival nature of memory, the film’s elaborate construction seems to call into question the very plasticity of reality itself as Schenker is plunged ever further into a many-circled Dantean inferno.
What is remarkable is that, in spite of its complexity, the film is propelled by narrative coherence rather than hampered by it, and the seemingly breathless pace of its meta-narrative is in direct contrast to the slow near-mundanity of many of its individual scenes. This latter stillness, coupled with the woozy, jaundiced visual aesthetic reminiscent of Roy Andersson, only serves to make this surreal Borgesian labyrinth all the more unnervingly nightmarish.
It ought to come as little surprise that The Social Network opens with a bad date which culminates in the ending of a relationship, since the protagonists in David Fincher’s films seldom seem to be having a good time in the amour stakes. If they are not recently divorced (Nicholas Van Orton in The Game, Panic Room‘s Meg Altman) then their marital relationships are showing signs of undergoing severe strain (David Mills in Seven, Robert Graysmith in Zodiac); if they are indeed ‘getting some’ at all then they are either not cognizant of the fact (Fight Club‘s unnamed protagonist), fatally unable to complete their Oedipal trajectory by dint of ageing backwards (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) or, most unfortunately of all, subject to impregnation by a xenomorphic alien creature (Alien 3).
It is worth focusing on the opening scene for a number of reasons. Firstly, it illustrates how surprisingly well the combination of writer and director – both distinctive artistic voices in their own right – are well matched here and enhance each others’ strong suits rather than compromise them. The Aaron Sorkin-penned brashly-inarticulate dialogue sits perfectly with David Fincher’s famously frenetic visual style, though the real standout in this first scene is perhaps the rapid cross-cutting of co-editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, a breathless velocity which sets the pace for what will become a whirlwind trip through the time between Facebook’s inception and its rapid spread across the globe.
The second function of the scene is succinctly to introduce us to the character of Mark Zuckerberg. What we can immediately glean is that he is a spiteful, sharp-tongued yet socially awkward high-achiever whose apparent main concern is not the enjoyment of life and study on the campuses at Harvard, but a zealous desire to gain entry into the freemason-like social sphere of its final clubs which he believes will be the making of him. If this is more than enough for his appalled girlfriend Erica to call time on their relationship and seize the opportunity to jump ship, the scene for the viewer foregrounds the question of the film’s main character’s curious motivations, which in two flash-forward time frames will be repeatedly called into question.
This initial scene also facilitates the first plot point: the drunken, spurned Zuckerberg is spurred into setting up the ‘Facemash’ website which will quickly gain him enough notoriety to bring him to the attention of the blue-blooded Winklevoss twins, whose proposed Ivy League dating site plants the seed for the idea which he will make his own. But so too does it confirm the film’s existence as a work of fiction, given that the date we are witness to could never have occurred in reality since the character of Erica has no real-life counterpart. If the factual accuracy of The Accidental Billionaires – Ben Mezrich’s book upon which the film’s screenplay is based – is questionable then evidently so must be Fincher and Sorkin’s account.
This is no sleight against the film. If the prospect of a narrative based around two injunctions brought against the maker of a website hardly sounds enticing, then the fictive world which is rendered is anything but. As Zuckerberg drunkenly codes his initial site, the film cuts between him and scenes of final club sophomores partying with local nubiles specially shipped-in for their entertainment, the scene more closely resembling the glossy abandon of an alcohol advertisement than anything approaching reality. The worlds of Fincher’s films often have a sense of the unreal about them, and that this time his story does not centre on serial killers, paranoiacs or sado-masochistic basement brawlers does not mean that it has any greater degree of fidelity to the real world.
In many ways, The Social Network is an interesting companion-piece to the director’s previous works, most obviously Zodiac, another film ostensibly based on ‘facts’ but introducing a large degree of conjecture about events which may remain unknowable. But that film functioned in a different time, one in which information dissemination was slowed by technology – the scene where the police admit not to having a fax machine springs most readily to mind – and time passed laboriously with no progress. By contrast, The Social Network plays out in an age of instantaneous worldwide communication and global viral memes. If the protagonist of Fight Club is astonished to discover how quickly his titular phenomenon has spread, it comes as little surprise to Zuckerberg.
That the film’s events take place in the very-recent world of near-instantaneous communications technology is what lends the film its feeling of suspense, and the sense that the events taking place are metonymic of the zeitgeist is underlined by the key difference between the ‘mirror identical’ Winklevoss twins (other than their handedness): their attitude towards pursuing the individual who they feel has stolen their idea. While Tyler Winklevoss is keen to be seen to behave according to the more old-fashioned, gentlemanly mores of Harvard social convention, Cameron Winklevoss seems to be more aware of the fact that the more time they allow Zuckerberg’s TheFacebook to gain the ascendancy, the further they set back their chances of pursuing him for theft.
Zuckerberg’s eventual ‘triumph’ over the Winklevoss twins in getting his Thefacebook out first and into social network hegemony is representative of a strange changing of the guard; the blue-blood Ivy League social groups which he so wanted to penetrate at the start of the film no-longer have relevance for him, as he moves his operation first to universities across the globe, and then to millions of public users. Facebook expands out from the cloistered intelligentsia to the wider proletariat, representing a triumph of bourgeois-capitalism over an antiquated quasi-feudal oligarchy. Ironically, the most humiliating evidence of the twins’ defeat comes at alongside a more literal defeat at that most bourgeois of occasions, the Henley Royal Regatta.
If The Social Network is about a character driven by his inability either to enter into the societal circles he wishes to inhabit or hold down a relationship, then it is not for long a sexless world which he and his co-founder Eduardo Saverin inhabit. Indeed, a key plot point is Zuckerberg adding the crucial element to Thefacebook: the ‘relationship status’ section. As membership of their site spreads across campus, so too does their own fame, and the former losers become unlikely lotharios. The real seduction, though, occurs later on when Zuckerberg meets Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder whose suave charm lures him away from Saverin and the stuffiness of New England academia and out to the more laidback, pseudo-bohemian lifestyle of California’s Silicon Valley. It feels analogous to similar events in Annie Hall, Parker very much the Tony-Lacey-like underhand villain, andSaverin’s evident distaste for West Coast hedonism the equal of Alvy Singer’s.
The film defies easy categorization. The pacing suggests a kind of thriller, though the subject matter makes this seem absurd. As a character study it is hardly a tragedy, nor is Zuckerberg’s story anywhere near a clear-cut one of rags-to-riches or of triumph against adversity. At its best it is actually closest to farce – the seriousness of the settings of the deposition hearings hilariously bearing witness to the petty squabbling and juvenile prankery of young adults – even to the point where a lawyer threatens to use one character’s supposed treatment of a live chicken to blacken his character. If Zuckerberg and Saverin are largely played straight, it is the exaggerated, cartoonish secondary characters which linger in the memory longest – the pathetic seriousness brought to the Winklevoss twins by Armie Hammer, and Justin Timberlake’s irresistibly debonair Sean Parker.
Ultimately, the sheer surface excitement of the story disguises the complexities of the film underneath; its three time-frames – the linear narrative of the main story and the two separate deposition hearings seen in flashforward – fit together so cohesively that their temporal relationship to each other is never muddied. What, though, is the message we are to take from the film? The deliberately deadpan ending makes clear that, in spite of his financial success and popular fame, Mark Zuckerberg has alienated himself from those who sought to get close to him, and even from this experience he has ultimately learned nothing. His response? Look up an old flame and click ‘add as friend’. What we do know is that he’ll be in for a long wait.
The exploration of the sometimes mysterious bond between a mother and her child is the kind of theme one might well expect to be best suited to straightforward melodrama but, ever the meddler with genre, Bong Joon-ho has crafted an engrossing detective-story thriller around the subject, a film which constantly defies the viewer’s expectations and offers both a moving portrayal of the power of the familial bond and a dark portrait of this link when pushed to its extremes. As well as being a play with familiar generic tropes, so too is his film a meditation on the importance of memory, set against the backdrop of a wider critique of male domination and female peripheralization in Korean society.
What characterized Bong’s previous two films, Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), was an obviously withering contempt for the patriarchal authorities contemporary to the periods in which they were set. In the former film, based on a real-life series of incidents in the late 1980s, a bungling police investigative team fail to catch a serial killer, while in the latter, the present-day residents of Seoul find themselves at the mercy of both their own paranoid government and the decidedly more gung-ho US authorities in the wake of an attack on the city by a gargantuan monster. In both films, it is the ordinary people who are made to suffer because of, or be scapegoats for, their public officials’ inadequacies.
Mother apparentlycontinues this thematic concern by focusing on an unnamed mother’s struggle to clear her son Do-joon’s name after he is, she firmly believes, wrongly incarcerated and made an easy scapegoat for the brutal murder of a young schoolgirl. In trying to prove his innocence we see her comes up against over-worked detectives, violent police interrogators and – worst of all – her well-paid lawyer who turns out to be more concerned with scoffing buffets and drunkenly cavorting with escorts rather than helping her champion her son’s case.
The film is almost exclusively viewed from the point of view of Do-joon’s mother, and we are quickly inclined to feel sympathy for her when, in film’s first scene after the opening titles, we witness her cutting her finger with a large slicing machine while she is paying more attention to her son’s safety than her own. When Do-joon is hit by a passing car, the aggressive Jin-tae leads him to seek revenge on the driver at the local golf course, where we learn that Do-joon is mentally slow, forgetful and easily led by his more impulsive friend. Indeed, we see that while Jin-tae is capable of sporadic acts of violence, his meek friend is unable even to kick a car’s wing mirror without coming off the worst in the act.
Do-joon’s mother is, as any parent would be, concerned that her good-natured son continues to keep company with this ‘bad seed’, but their maternal relationship also seems at best off-kilter, and at worst positively unhealthy: though he is 27 years old, she still over-dotes on him as if he were an infant, and the virginal son still sleeps in his mother’s bed at night. In one tragi-comic scene she even feeds him ‘medicine’ while he stands in the street relieving himself against a wall; after he rushes off she tries to tidy up after him, scraping the urine away with her foot, and covering the spot with a nearby piece of metal.
The odd dynamic between mother and son seems strange but at this stage somewhat benign and as if it is being played for laughs, and when the harmless but distinctly un-savvy Do-joon gets hauled in by the police and roughed up by their interrogator in order to sign a confession, we naturally side with the mother in protesting his innocence, as well as suspecting Jin-Tae’s possible guilt. It is here that Mother shifts into a familiar detective-story mode, with the titular protagonist seeking clues to uncover the identity of the real killer, motivated both by her love (however strange) for her son and the apparent inability or unwillingness of the official channels of law enforcement to look beyond the circumstantial evidence of the case.
This is how the story appears to want to unfold as it settles down, and there is a sense of a return to his previous films’ concerns with the powerless oppressed struggling in the face of an uncaring bureaucracy. Our identification with the mother and her struggle has been uncomplicated, resting on easily identifiable premises: a vulnerable, elderly woman struggling against uncaring authorities to prove her mild-mannered son innocent and to turn suspicion towards his violent friend. Yet almost as soon as her own investigation begins she appears to come up against a dead end, one which turns at least one of these assumptions on its head. In classic detective-thriller tradition, and with more than a little hint of Twin Peaks, her sleuthing leads her to make some startling discoveries about her small town and she becomes embroiled in a much more sinister and potentially dangerous situation than she first had anticipated.
Mother‘sconvolutednarrativeabout-turns not only maintain an admirable air of suspense for its 130 minute running time, but serve to undermine many of the assumptions and prejudices the viewer holds about the story and its characters. If Memories of Murder played on the tropes of the police procedural genre and The Host similarly toyed withthe familiar mores of the family-drama-amidst-monster-attack movie, the film uses the setup of a detective-story to expose how the viewer becomes emotionally complicit with the depths of its main character’s moral elasticity without even realizing it – until, that is, it is too late. The beating heart of Bong’s film is a dark, twisted one which, as well as showing how familial bonds can be an empowering, all-conquering force for good, they are the same ones which can drive people to go too far. Nevertheless, lead actress Kim Hye-ja, familiar to Korean audiences for playing more placid matriarchs, conjures up a mesmerizing central performance as a quiet, subservient elderly mother steeled by her resolve to free her son, and it is hard not to be swept along by this woman’s sheer determination.
The film’s feminine title underlines the fact that there is a large focus on the cultural and social divide between the genders, and though the subject of female subjugation is not broached explicitly, it is one which is ever-present in the background. If men are not alternately portrayed as bullying, incompetent, pathetic, money-grabbing, self-serving, violent, whimsical or sexually rapacious creatures then, as in the case of the fathers of both Do-joon and murdered schoolgirl Moon Ah-jung, they are absent entirely. The question of Do-joon’s father is never raised, and at one stage his mother even suggests to one of her acupuncture clients that it was ‘medicine’ which made her pregnant with her son. By contrast, women are the efficient workers, the gossips who know what is happening in the community, the victims of bullying, taken advantage of sexually, or at the extremes are driven to drink or attempted suicide. The mourners at Moon Ah-jung’s wake are almost exclusively female.
Do-joon’s memory – or lack thereof – serves not merely as a device to initiate and maintain the central mystery plot, but also as a metaphor for his essential unknowability to his mother, regardless of how close their relationship is; to what extent his amnesia is selective by choice or otherwise is never made explicit, which leaves us as much in the dark as she is. One dramatic revelation about their past, however, offers some clue as to its cause, as well as suggesting that one thing he may not be able to remember is something that she chooses advantageously not to remind him of. It also serves to cast in darker hues both her character and her apparently unselfish servitude to him. By the end, we are left to guess the extent to which Do-joon is able to piece together what his mother has done; she, however, makes sure she takes steps never to remember, and the film’s memorable final shot serves as a poignant recapitulation of its equally striking first.
The film’s emotional zenith comes when the mother is called upon to visit JT, an adolescent with Downs’ Syndrome who has been captured after escaping from the sanitorium. She simply asks him if he has any parents, a mother? His negative reply causes her to break down – but is it entirely out of pity for him? Her relationship with her son may have empowered her to go to extraordinary, almost unthinkable lengths to save him, but as much as this moment comes as catharsis it also serves to remind her of the horrors she has witnessed too. All in the journey of a mother, though, one in which the ability to forget may well be as important as that to remember.
Mother is released on DVD on 20 September by Optimum Releasing.