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The Good Bad Mother (2023) A Final Rant
I know I said I would be busy the next two weeks but after finishing The Good Bad Mother and seeing all the effusive praise for it, I had a myriad of thoughts travelling through my head and I couldn’t help myself. If it sounds like I’m rambling on aimlessly… you’ll know why.
I don’t think it’s remotely controversial to say that there are no lack of competent actors in South Korea at present. In the last few years there have also been so many talented youngsters rising through the ranks which bodes well for the longevity of the industry. That said, good actors, no matter how good are no substitute for a tightly plotted and well-executed drama script. I won’t deny that a good actor can elevate the material and flesh out badly written characters. Good actors might even be able to cover the multitude of writing sins in the script. Ultimately however mediocrity will diminish the quality of the storytelling and by extension the accumulated reputation of the industry. Reborn Rich is a good example of this. Even a highly regarded performer like Lee Seung-min couldn’t save the show from the misbegotten finale — arguably the most important portion of the show — a decision that left many avid watchers reeling with disappointment.
Once it was all over there’s very little doubt in my mind that The Good Bad Mother, an incoherent mediocre script was rescued by experienced and talented actors — from the very young (the adorable twins) to the seasoned veterans. The entire production epitomizes the problems that I’ve been having with K dramas in the last few years as I’ve watched the quality of storytelling gradually deteriorate as quantity increasingly trumps quality. A closer examination of the script bears that out. There’s really nothing in the script that can’t be found in a standard weekend family fare. In fact it recycles many if not all of the usual makjang tropes. Amnesia anyone? That in and of itself doesn’t have to be a net negative but what really bothers me is the way that there’s a lot of whitewashing and hand waving of consequences like mother’s abusive tendencies all throughout. I don’t think the show condones her antics (although at times it’s hard to tell) but in the long run the overly optimistic tone diminishes the gravity of her actions. Forgiveness feels cheaply given when sackcloth and ashes are what’s needed to cleanse the palate. But ultimately it’s the fact that the show justifies Mother’s tough love stance because magically everything works out for this tragedy-stricken family.
It occurred to me at around the ninth or tenth episode that the titular mother, rather than being an actual character is little more than a plot device. She doesn’t even look like a cancer sufferer in stage four. The terminal illness trope, one of many overused drama tropes on display here becomes the impetus for her wacky decision making process. Her desperation leads her to some really questionable actions including pushing a wheelchair-bound Kang-ho into a muddy pond to compel him to get moving. I watched in horror as the thought that “he could have died” crossed my mind. While the show doesn’t condone the act, it invites the audience to pity her because… poor woman she’s running out of time. Consequently (so the logic goes) the emotions underpinning the madness is understandable. Her good intentions due to impending death absolve her from responsibility. Frankly it is a cop out. And a dangerous one. Mum doesn’t have to live with the consequences of bad decisions that she and Kang-ho made. Grandchildren growing up without their father. Mi-joo having to fly solo with the twins all this time. It allows everyone in the village to have a good cry, hold hands and reminisce about the good o’l days. The result is: everything seems so inconsequential, The show in its totality becomes inconsequential. That’s why the trial of the villains feel so cartoony, anticlimactic and farcical. It is a knock-on effect of everything else being far-fetched. Dispatching the baddies also becomes negligible despite all the build up and all the shenanigans of the Lettuce Lads. The resolution doesn’t rise beyond the level of a circus. The show paints itself into a corner by getting rid of all the evidence prior. Therefore a trial can only be of use when it’s turned into an episode of the Jerry Springer Show. The trial is silly and convenient but in truth it is no worse than most of the other episodes preceding it.
Makjangs are tethered to types. Whether it be Jungian archetypes or folkloric types as identified by Popper. Mother is a type. Kang-ho is a type. Although I’m no friend of Freud’s, the mother-son dynamic borders on the Oedipal. From where I’m looking it’s more than helicopter parenting at play. She is trying to live out her late husband’s dream in her son and her protectiveness has disturbing overtones.
At the core of this problem is the way K dramas have been trying to blend genres that just don’t fit together. Kang-ho’s revenge plot concerning a corrupt politician in bed with Big Business is not only old hat but nonsensical. It’s meant to drive conflict and separation which devolves into noble idiocy. The baddies seem powerful and menacing for most of the story but in the end, they’re just cardboard cutouts who outstay their welcome. The crime element doesn’t fit the show narratively or tonally. It’s only purpose, on hindsight is to keep the show from reaching the end sooner than it should.
As a result Mother and possibly even the son both feel like puppets dancing to the writer’s tune. Ra Mi-ran and Lee Do-hyun are great actors that breathe life into these characters but the writing of their dynamic is fraught with contradictions and just doesn’t ring true. For me the most authentic, heartwarming part of the show are the villagers. Even though they’re often used as comic relief, they come across as real people dealing with real issues building community in the best way they know how. Ahn Eun-jin is a sight for sore eyes in this. Oozing likeability and humanity in every scene. She’s an significant part of why this show isn’t complete failure although she really doesn’t need to be in the show. In fact, there are a bunch of characters that contribute very little to the narrative except to take up air time.
Alas… I really wanted to like this one because of the first half. Sure it pushes all the right emotional buttons at the opportune moments but as a whole it’s a mishmash of ideas that has some semblance of a story but little by way of a plot.