Toldot Genesis 25:19-28:9 – Mother, Memory and Motive Bong Joon-ho Mother

Why did Rebecca favour Jacob over Esau, his older twin brother? Why was Rebecca willing to help Jacob deceive her husband, Isaac, in order for Jacob to get Isaac’s blessing instead of his older brother, Esau? Why did Rebecca urge Jacob to flee his father’s household for her brother’s, his Uncle Laban’s home in Haran? Why was Rebecca so sure that if Jacob stayed away for enough time, Esau’s fury would subside and he would forget what Isaac had done to him? If Rebecca favoured Jacob so much, why was she so fearful of losing both of them in one day, and how could she lose both of them if Esau meted out his anger and desire for revenge on his younger twin, Jacob?

My daughter, Rachel Adelman, who now teaches in a rabbinical seminary, Hebrew College in Boston, wrote a book entitled The Female Ruse: Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible of which the first chapter deals with the Rebecca story. She also edited a special collection of essays for the Society of Textual Learning and its scholarly journal, Journal of Textual Reasoning. Her opening essay in that essay was called, “From Veils to Goatskins: The Female Ruse in Genesis.” The core question of that special issue was how female subterfuge, the “female ruse,” the role of the mother as a trickster on behalf of a favourite son, was treated in the Jewish canon, and how it could function to determine religious norms?

In a world of male dominance, where the activities and even identities of women are so much defined by men, in a world where the boundaries around women are very restrictive, where the male authority figures are so condescending towards women – we live in the age of Anita Hill and Supreme Court Justice of the United States, Clarence Thomas, the age of President Donald Trump who once boasted on video that he felt free to grab women “by the pussy,” a man whom his first wife, Ivanka, claimed tore out a clump of her hair and raped her in a fit of rage because she had recommended the hair transplant doctor from whose transplants he was then suffering such pain, a presidential candidate whose personal lawyer went to jail for paying for the silence of women whom Trump, on the basis of the evidence I had heard, seemed most probably to have molested – so the much milder patriarchal biblical context should not be very difficult to grasp.

Given what happened to the women who claimed that Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh in his hearing for ratification were treated for telling what clearly appeared to be the truth about his behaviour as a young man, it should be evident that trickery can have unexpected ethical and even legal consequences when truth does not, when truth even has devastating consequences for the women telling that truth. In essence, when concealment transforms an identity and it is the female who decides and determines the lineage of a people, the female ruse needs to be explored and even respected. Rebecca’s use of disguises, of masking, is not only forgiven but memorialized and condoned in the Torah. God, from the Garden of Eden onwards, is in cahoots with women to overcome the mindblindness of men. Women become the vehicle for unveiling divine knowledge, the knowledge of the heart in contrast to the objective knowledge of that which is said to belong to the opposite side of the brain, lest dogma and brute force become the determinants of the political game.

The knowledge of the heart is not the opposite of rational calculation, but, rather, is married to rational calculation as distinct from a schizophrenic system that divides those two realms into two different worlds. Subversive methods have to be used to overcome the marriage of power and purported objective reasoning, in contrast to a utilitarian calculus with a subjective purpose. Further, the greatest male commentators on the biblical narrative, such as Rabbi Akiva, were sensitive to both the necessity and the means by which women acquired agency through not only cunning and subterfuge, but, in the case of Sarah, the use of coercion in usurping Abraham’s authority and forcing Hagar to flee into the wilderness with her son, Ishmael, and Abraham’s eldest and favourite. Sarah performed a horrendous and illegal act, amounting to intent to kill, in the expulsion of Hagar and her son. Why is she treated as a heroine in the Torah?

The key element of undertaking the deceit is visual perception. The consequence will be a subversion of the established legal realm in favour of a world where God is celebrated, not simply as a God of mercy but as a Dionysian figure, a God of happiness and rejoicing rather than the hand of severe justice. As my daughter has written, “God works through the feminine ruse to redeem people, political power, even the law over the course of biblical history.” (See also my daughter, Rachel’s essay, “On Laughter and Forgetting,” themes also taken up in the film, Mother, that I will also review.)

The female tricksters violate moral norms, but in so doing, these women help in the transformation of society into a more compassionate and heartfelt realm. When the authors of these stories include these subversive tales into the literary canon, is their intention to side with the women? Or is their intention designed to expose that trickery and brand women as tricksters? The snake tricked Eve and Eve seduced Adam. That is the most often told lie in interpreting the Adam and Eve story.

To make this interpretation that I am putting forth vivid and part of a very different but complex male authoritative world, instead of answering the questions posed at the beginning of this blog which I will leave for you, I want to analyze an even older film (2009) than Okja, the one that I reviewed yesterday. For the first time last evening, I saw Mother by the same Korean director, Bong Joon-ho. The film is called a thriller and/or a detective story. It certainly follows the general trope of these genres, but the movie is far more than that.

If I was making a more definitive claim about Bong Joon-ho’s entire oeuvres, I would have to review The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013) as well as Paradise currently showing in cinemas.  Therefore, consider this half of a blog a probe rather than a full-scale thesis.

Mother opens (and closes) with Hye-ja Kim playing an unnamed woman of about fifty, walking towards us looking very forlorn in a very large field of tall hay and she gradually begins dancing by herself. We then see her in her own herbal remedy shop cutting herbs with a paper cutter as she ominously watches her mentally challenged son, Yoon Do-joon, playing with a dog on the curbside across the road, Very suddenly, he is struck by a hit-and-run driver. He is not seriously hurt, but he and his ruffian friend, Jin-tae (Jin Goo), note the make of the car, its colour and its licence plate and follow it to a golf course bent on revenge on the driver.

We learn very quickly that the mother is totally devoted to her son. We also learn that she is an illegal unlicensed practitioner of acupuncture on the side who promises a wealthy but barren rich woman that by using her techniques, a pregnancy can be guaranteed. She also uses acupuncture to free clients from unwanted memories that have repressed their heart and feelings. By then we also quickly become aware of the mother’s absolute commitment to her son who is twenty-seven years old but totally dependent on his single mother and that Yoon Do-joon’s mental retardation manifests itself in rash anger and even rage at any insults directed his way while he is also naïve, innocent and very unassuming.

That innocence will be one of the many deceptive tools the director uses to trick us into seeing his truth. Further, the two boys use determination, luck and calculation to find the five professors who drove away without stopping after hitting Yoon Do-joon with their car; they fled the scene so that they could get to their golf game on time. The two boys and the five men engage in a fight and all seven end up in jail charged, in the case of the professors, with hit-and-run, and, in the case of the two boys, who bested the five professors in their fight, with assault. The police try to mediate and get both the cold and indifferent academics and the two rash boys to drop charges, until the police discover that the boys broke the rear-view mirror of the Mercedes Benz that hit Yoon Do-joon and it will cost a great deal to fix.

The charges for hit-and-run as well as assault are dropped, but the mother is forced to borrow to pay for the repair when the mirror was really broken by Jin-tae who lied and insisted that Yoon Do-joon did the damage. Jin-tae is a thug who uses his mentally challenged friend and would betray him easily if and when needed. Thus, packed into a very short time at the beginning of the movie is a theme of deception used for self-protection versus the mother’s illegal deception to earn money to support her son to whom she is so devoted. We learn of the materialism of society and the use of its authority to protect property rather than persons. We are also presented with a stereotype of academics as cold, totally indifferent to issues of justice or compassion, and only intent on “their pound of flesh.”

What follows is the murder of a high school girl, Moon Ah-jung, whom Yoon Do-joon followed into a dark alley, but whom we also see back away from the scene. Moon Ah-jung’s body was found the next day hanging over a rail with her hair hanging down. The police find a witness who identifies Yoon Do-joon as having been at the crime scene, but only after the police themselves had located a golf ball that the boy had fished out of a water hole at the golf course and inscribed his name on. Serendipity combined with clues point to the boy’s guilt while we viewers are convinced of his innocence from what we observed.

The mother searches for the killer through byways and dead ends. She is the detective in this tale since the police are convinced that they have found the murderer, especially since the boy talks without the aid of counsel and even signs a confession when requested by his interrogators. The movie fits all the boxes to dub it a crime thriller about murder and finding the real killer. In seeking to prove her son’s innocence, the mother travels down one blind alley after another.

The movie comprises a combination of recovered memories, one of which leads to the alienation of the son from his mother, and new knowledge that has to be hidden. There are totally serendipitous moments, as if this movie were a satire of its own genre, and newly discovered evidence on the way to finding the killer. As the movie unfolds, another murder takes place, though that murder is covered up. That is one way of learning that the surface of the movie will not be the same as its depth.

You will have to see the movie yourself to see how an almost absurdist version of the detective trope can disguise a film loaded with deep meaning. Instead, I will compare and contrast the tale of Rebecca in the Torah with the narrative in Mother to reveal how deception is used and memories recovered to uncover the underlying meaning of mayhem and murder.

Both the film and the Torah tale use the device of a cover-up both literally and figuratively. Rebecca has Jacob cover his arms with an animal skin so they will feel hairy to his father who can then mistake Jacob for his brother Esau in spite of Jacob’s high voice. The mother in the film uses several guises herself through the movie to find the killer, such as pretending to be a health care worker when she visits a junk collector who may have been a witness to the murder.

The mother uses her medical techniques of acupuncture to unlock the forgotten repressed memories that burden the junk collector’s heart – his role as a junk collector is very relevant – but the result in inadvertent and unintended. So are Rebecca’s. Her advice appears to be successful in tricking Isaac, but the trick is uncovered and Jacob is forced to flee for his life. Obtaining the blessing, in the short run, seemed to result in the opposite of the goal intended, the inheritance of Isaac’s wealth by his son Jacob rather than Esau. Jacob is forced to flee and earn his fortune on his own by both being deceived and learning to use deception. As it turns out, God uses deceptive ways to counteract normal psychological and sociological forces to achieve a better outcome.

Both tales begin with two boys of very opposite character with the thug dominating the innocent in the film and the hunter type dominating the stay-at-home younger twin in the biblical tale. While the thug disappears from history in the movie, Esau does not but is prophesied to emerge to be the forebear of multitudinous tribes, but ones that will in the end be subservient to the much smaller group of descendants of his younger brother.

In the movie, there is no sense of a long-term historical pattern unfolding. Rather, Bong Joon-ho is more of a Rousseau figure, offering a glimpse of a return to nature, a return to a mythical and misinterpreted Garden of Eden as an escape from the trials and tribulations, the deceit and the power plays of the larger material world. Bong Joon-ho would sacrifice the thugs of this world and relegate to them the status of permanent losers while the Torah makes every effort to preserve the seed of Abraham if only in an opposite way than would otherwise develop from natural determinants. Rebecca will not lose her sons, Esau and Jacob, on the same day but will gain a place in the history of both.

In the Torah, Isaac is the blind one. In the movie, following the genre, the official police are the blind ones as they, in typical fashion to the underpinnings of the genre, draw conclusions to easily and too readily without seeking to develop a much larger picture. That is an instruction that the Torah gives its readers and that the director of the movie sends to his viewers.

Both tales have a prequel. Rebecca and Isaac want a child and pray to God for one. He plants two in her womb. Rebecca experiences violence between them. God prophesies that the two will be divided from one another. “One state shall become mightier than the other and the mighty one shall serve the lesser.” The mother in the movie it turns out was also divided within herself and subverted her own action to resolve and end the tearing within herself, but the subversion of her effort takes place for the most mundane cause. The mother was too cheap to purchase the right chemicals to do the job. Her mind was at odds with her heart and her heart had to undermine the mind with its own determination process. Sarah more self-consciously recognizes that the cowboy and the farmer cannot be friends and that she must choose one that will advance civilization not retard it, even if it means, even if it must mean, favouring one child over the other and will require subverting a patriarchal order.

The nature of the divisions in the two cases are very different. In the Torah, it will be a battle between two ways of life, the restless nomad or the settled agriculturalist. In the movie, it will be an internal struggle between compassion and love versus self-interested detached and calculating reason. But in each case, the deeper meaning has to be mined, has to be unveiled. The cover-up has to be removed to discover and recover the hidden meaning. The mother is not the only one required to undertake detective work. Both reveals do so in very different ways and for very different reasons, but it is incumbent on the reader to excavate below the surface, to unveil the cover-up of standard literary tropes to reveal the meaning underneath the surface of banal and even incredulous tales.  

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