Representing Mothers on the Recent Korean Stage: The Fantasy Mother and the Grotesque Maternal Body*

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  • ABSTRACT

    This article investigates how the image of the mother is represented respectively in the dramatic adaptations of two novels, Mayonnaise and Please Look After Mom. This essay asserts that these two stage adaptations raise provocative questions that disrupt the conventional ideas of motherhood and traditional image of “the mother.” I analyze these two dramatized plays because, despite the large differences in their representations of the mother, the two plays share some points in common. I argue that they not only embody the mother through the feelings of the daughters and the abject bodies of the mothers, but also reverse the conventional story of mother and daughter. In particular, this article analyzes how the two theatrical works represent the patriarchal daughters and the rebellious mothers, observing that the grotesque bodies of the mother on stage is revolutionary, while the daughters, who seem to be more radical, are emotionally trapped inside the traditional fantasy of motherhood. Furthermore, this essay argues that the two plays, relying on emotions and bodies as sources of knowledge and meaning, awaken the audience to redefine motherhood and to hear the traditionally unspoken story of mothers. For this analysis, I refer to Adrienne Rich’s framework of motherhood and draw on Julia Kristeva’s critical thoughts on the abject and motherhood.


  • KEYWORD

    Shin Kyung-sook , Chun Hye-sung , Ko Yeon-ok , Please Look After Mom , Mayonnaise , mother-daughter relationship , the fantasy mother , daughter’s emotions , the abject , the bodies

  • II

    Mayonnaise depicts a self-centered, unconventional mother fascinated with the romantic love story represented in the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind, likes handsome American actors such as Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) and Marlon Brando (1924-2004), admires Vivien Leigh, a famous British actress (1913-1967), and is obsessed with decorating herself. When the mother of this play (she is introduced as just mother without her name) first appears on the stage, she is wearing a colorful long coat and a hat with ornaments; she expresses her envy for her rich friend who wears fashionable dresses; she sprinkles perfume on her ears. She even nags her daughter to buy an expensive mink coat or massage vouchers. She continuously performs the role of a weak, tired, sick old woman who looks ready to collapse and takes many kinds of medicine (for diabetes, nervousness, neurosis, high blood pressure, and stroke), eagerly begging for her daughter’s attention. She is far from being a Korean traditional mother, the sacrificing, voiceless mother.

    On the other hand, So-nyo,7 the mother in Please Look After Mom, is the absolute, selfless mom who never stops working and dedicates her entire self to raising her offspring despite poverty. So-nyo, as the goddess of the Earth and Nature, is the epitome of the traditional feminine virtue of (re)production; she labors every day in the field or in the yard to help the natural cycle of reproduction with her own hands, plowing and sowing, and raising silkworms, chicks, pigs, dogs, cats, and all kinds of vegetables; she is a productive maker of such traditional organic foods as sesame oil, tofu, malt, plum juice, raspberry juice, soybean paste, and fast fermented bean paste. She is also a model figure of patience: without complaining, she endures her husband’s endless extramarital affairs, her sister-in-law’s mistreatment and harsh words, hard labor, sickness, and poverty; she is an angel who can be grateful for even very little things around her. So-nyo’s virtues seem to be limitless: she is a spiritual healer and educator; she shares spiritual communication with her husband’s younger brother, Kyun, and her first daughter, Chi-hon; she encourages Kyun to attend school, and she helps Chi-hon to study in Seoul in spite of poverty and the opposition of those around her.

    Both of these stories that focus on mothers have the same tales of intense regret and loss. The stories are also mainly written from the points of view of daughters. The central emotional states explored in the representations of both mothers are disillusionment, discontent, sadness, frustration, guilt, and melancholy. A-jeong, the daughter in Mayonnaise, is a biography writer and continuously complains about her mother’s selfish behavior. A-jeong is suffering emotionally from the gap between her illusion about the mother she wants (the mother as a place of utter peace and sacrifice) and her real, immature mother. A-jeong wants “the perfect mother who can remain intact and spiritually healthy amidst all the disorderly surroundings (i.e., her family’s poverty due to someone’ fraud and her father’s stroke), which are out of joint and have gone wrong.”8 Unfortunately for A-jeong, her mother is not a perfect mother, nor is she what A-jeong expects her to be. Instead, she is a selfish woman with feminine desires. While taking care of her husband, who has been laid up with cerebral palsy for ten years, she would bawl and squall at him in anger. The behavior of A-jeong’s mother went to extremes when she put cold cream on her face and applied mayonnaise to her hair while removing her husband’s bodily wastes from his bed. This disgusting scene of A-jeong’s mother with her hair covered in mayonnaise robbed A-jeong of all understanding of her mother’s suffering, and of all other fond feelings to her mother. A-jeong was shocked at the scene and suddenly faced with the symbolic loss of her mother. A-jeong, who fantasizes about the perfect, sacrificing mother, is unwilling to understand her mother’s physical and emotional pain. A-jeong, disillusioned and resentful, decides to cut the emotional ties of their mother-daughter relationship. She says to her mom:

    She finally confesses that “now I’ve lost mom.” Stage directions describe A-jeong’s feelings toward her mom as those of irritation, annoyance, nervousness, disillusionment, displeasure, embarrassment, doubt, and scorn. Throughout the play, A-jeong’s feelings of revulsion towards her mom are repeatedly transformed into reproachful, cruel remarks attacking her mom and leaving A-jeong herself perplexed and low spirited.

    Chi-hon, the high-strung novelist daughter in Please Look After Mom is searching for her lost mother, revealing her intense desire for an ideal mother.9 Resigned to the tragic reality that she cannot have her mother, Chi-hon nevertheless wants nothing else. She tells her father after losing her mother:

    To Chi-hon, her mother is a spiritual harbor, to whom she can return at any time and receive comfort. In that harbor, Chi-hon can also let go of all emotional residue. Chi-hon talks to her sister in sorrowful recollection after her mom’s disappearance. She says, “There’s been no need to find her because I think Mom is and will always be with me in the place where I want her to be.” After her mother disappears, Chi-hon loses that harbor of consolation. In the empty place, Chi-hon constructs a holy place of remembrance, a place where she can cleanse her soul of sins against her mom by remembering, imagining, and recreating the sick, pathetic, holy mother, the mother who is fragile enough to fall apart, ill enough to fall down, lonely enough to weep, fearful enough to escape, old enough to disappear, but who can accept reality as it is and embrace everyone as they are. It is only after her mom disappears that Chi-hon realizes that “once, my mom was a young girl. I guess she was frequently fearful and found it hard to live as a mother, bearing a heavy burden on her shoulders. She is not as strong a person as we think she is . . . . so weak that she can disappear all of a sudden like this.”

    Unlike Mayonnaise, Please Look After Mom does not present the mother So-nyo directly, but instead recreates her through the recollections of her family members, including Chi-hon. It is only when So-nyo becomes a ghost after her death that her character is brought to life at least on stage. But So-nyo’s ghost’s airy presence emphasizes her unreal characteristics rather than the recollected image painted by her family members. As an absent, illusionary figure, So-nyo becomes a fantasy, a holy mother who calls forth feelings of grief, regret, and guilt, of being utterly bereft.

    Yet So-nyo is not a woman without desires. Her secular desires are slightly revealed in the memories retold by her family members and So-nyo’s ghost. Beneath the image of the selfless, holy mother considerate of others, considering herself a sinner, and enduring the lies of her unfaithful husband and harsh sister-in-law, So-nyo feels strong desires for self-fulfillment, decoration, and sexual love, desires that she cannot fulfill in her time (between the 1960’s and the 1980’s) and in her environment (a poor farming area in South Korea). Because of this, she vicariously fulfills her desires though her successful daughter, who was sent to Seoul for further education when she was 15 years old. She enjoys listening to stories told by her daughter; she transforms her secret romantic desire for Eun-kyu Lee (the local man she secretly loves), the only person who knows how weak she is, into spiritual love: she gives comfort to him, helps his family, and is consoled by him whenever she feels depressed, oppressed, or dejected. So-nyo does not have the power to defy the traditional motherly role imposed on her and is therefore forced to control and hide her private desires. She is only belatedly understood as a weak, sick, desirous mother. In regret, Chi-hon expresses her wish that she could listen to her mother’s personal stories, take her mother’s hands, embrace her so that she could cry in her arms like a child.

    The two daughters in both stories are self-conscious, enlightened writers critical of Korea’s patriarchal society. This aspect is clearly revealed when A-jeong criticizes the sacrificing mother and the insurance sales queen, of whom she is writing an autobiography, as a “megalomaniac.” It is not clear whether Chi-hon is conscious of feminist issues, but by becoming a successful novelist, she fulfills her dream and thus retains her mobility and a measure of independence. With her belated understanding of her mother, Chi-hon realizes that she, unlike her mother, enjoys the honor of being an intellectual woman writer. Yet both daughters are still subconsciously dependent upon the fantasy of complete gratification in their concept of an ideal mother, a product of the patriarchal order. Both A-jeong and Chi-hon still desire a fantasy mother in a contemporary world where she cannot live. In this aspect, they are the very examples of the children in Julia Kristeva’s theory of motherhood. According to Kristeva, it is not the mother herself but the memory of the absolute woman, who is imagined in our traditional representations of motherhood (“Stabat Mater” 161).

    It is noteworthy that not only the daughters but also the mothers, in these stories, eagerly want to have their own absolute mothers. A-jeong, the daughter in Mayonnaise, has “the instinctive, artificial desire for the absolute mom,” “the limitlessly graceful, embracing, absolutely sacrificing mother who is as warm as the Spring Earth.” A-jeong’s mother also has an intense desire for her own mother that is identical to A-jeong’s desire; this mother, too, wants the absolutely embracing, purely sacrificing mother. Such strange meeting between mother and daughter is epitomized in the symbolic first scene of Mayonnaise, where A-jeong, who is standing on high steps, and her mother, who is standing on the floor, see each other. They continuously call each other “mom” as if they are competing with each other for the position of the daughter. Both A-jeong and her mother anxiously search for a fantasy mother; this phenomenon is described as “an illusion, floundering narcissistic obsession with a non-thing” by the author.

    Unlike A-jeong’s mother, Chi-hon’s mother So-nyo does not initially express her wish to have her mom, but in the final scene, it is revealed that So-nyo does always wish to be beside her dear mother and to be comforted by her. In the final fantasy scene, So-nyo’s mother (Chi-hon’s grandmother) is stroking her injured feet after taking off her blue plastic slippers. After death, her (So-nyo’s) spirit returns to the bosom of her mother and hears words of comfort from her. So-nyo responds to her mom, saying, “Did you know that I wish you, my mother, were always beside me?”

    The fact that mothers as well as daughters live in maternal absence, and thus in disillusion, indicates that these women have learned the terms of the mother-daughter relationship in the given symbolic order (the patriarchal order). Mothers, as daughters, always live the melancholy of mourning, seeking their fantasy mothers in the realm of the imaginary and keeping that absence in their sick bodies, while becoming the dreamed-of-mothers for their daughters, the unique woman of absolute virtues. However, the fact that mothers become daughters who seek their own mothers itself can be a signal to re-think the mother-daughter relationship in patriarchal society, because it can blur the boundaries between mother and daughter and disrupt the location of their given identities. For example, the realization that both A-jeong’s mom and Chi-hon’s mom had been and want to be daughters leads to a shattering of the patriarchal concept of the absolute mother and to our recognizing the potential to redefine motherhood.

    1This article was originally written in June 2012 as a presentation paper for the 4th Contemporary Women’s Writing Conference (June 11-13, 2012), held in Taipei, Taiwan. After my writing of the paper, Kim Ki-duk’s Golden Lion Award film Pieta was released on September 4, 2012. This film, which deals with motherhood as one of its major concepts, is another powerful indication of Korea’s recent obsession with the mother. Furthermore, the fact that the film won several international awards tells us that the obsession is not simply a Korean phenomenon but a world-wide one.  2In a special lecture (on January 14, 2013) for a seminar titled “Creating the Stories Using Korean Traditional Heritage,” hosted by the Institute of British and American Language and Culture of Chung-Ang University, Shin also emphasized that she made us hear the mother character’s inner dialogue in the first person “I” narrative to recover the mom’s lost subjectivity and to place her in the center. It is very important, she added, to write the mother’s narrative in the first person because the novel is divided into four parts, each of these parts reflecting a different character’s perspective, and the writing of at least half of the novel is in the second person narrative.  3Many people acclaimed Kim Ki-duk’s film, Pieta, for its suggestion of motherhood as a cure for people imprisoned in the brutal capitalistic system.  4The two dramatic versions are not published; I used the performance scripts for this article. For Mayonnaise, I used the premiere script and for Please Look After Mom, the revised 2010 performance (director Shim Jae-chan) script (because the playwright prefers the revised one).  5Mayonnaise has been continuously revived since its premiere; its film version appeared in 1999. Please Look After Mom also gained unprecedented popularity in 2010 and 2011 in several regions; its musical version enjoyed enormous popular acclaim in 2012.  6Rich concludes her book with a new vision of body: “There is for the first time today a possibility of converting our physicality into both knowledge and power. Physical motherhood is merely one dimension of our being. We know that the sight of a certain face, the sound of a voice, can stir waves of tenderness in the uterus . . . . We are neither ‘inner’ nor ‘outer’ constructed; our skin is alive with signals; our lives and our deaths are inseparable from the release or blockage of our thinking bodies” (284).  7So-nyo means “young girl” in Korean.  8All quotations from the play script of Mayonnaise are my translations. Because the play script was not published, I do not indicate exact page numbers.  9The mother in both the novel and the play of Please Look After Mom is represented not just from the perspective of Chi-hon, the first daughter, but from the viewpoints of all of her family members and So-nyo’s ghost. But I see Chi-hon (especially in the play text) as representative of So-nyo’s family members because Scene 10, titled “The Relationship Between Mother and Daughter,” depicts the conversation between Chi-hon and So-nyo, and in Scene 14, the first son confesses that So-nyeo regards Chi-hon as her the other self. Moreover, Chi-hon is the most self-reflective character; especially deep in her ruminations is the intense guilt that she, as a novelist, feels toward her illiterate mom, and there is thus a quiet irony in Chi-hon’s relationship with her mother. For these reasons, I will focus on the relationship between So-nyo and Chi-hon.  10All quotations from the playscript of Please Look After Me are my translations. Because the play script was not published, I do not indicate exact page numbers.

    III

    The two dramatic works more forcefully cut the endless cycle of the patriarchal mother-daughter relationship by representing the grotesque bodies of the mothers. Unlike the original novels, the two dramatic adaptations physically portray the mother with performing bodies on stage, and this physicality can help disturb the audience into passing beyond the boundaries of articulation toward deeper regions of resistance or protest. A-jeong’s mother’s hair covered with mayonnaise in Mayonnaise can be a condensed image for the daughter’s feelings of revulsion toward her mother. When A-jeong’s mother was discovered immediately before being engulfed by flames, in front of a gas range, she had fallen to the floor in a stupor with mayonnaise on her hair and defecated from an overdose of laxative. This incongruity between mayonnaise and excrement, between her desire to look beautiful and her loss of prettiness, between the distorted pursuit for beauty and the loss of human dignity, relentlessly renders ridiculous, from A-jeong’s perspective, her mother’s feminine desire or self-expression. It reveals the reality that A-jeong’s mother is a burden to her daughter, highlighting how childish and abnormal she is.

    Yet this repulsive body of the mother with mayonnaise and excrement is a kind of Kristeva’s abject which is “ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable” (Powers of Horror 1). With this repugnant maternal body of defilement, A-jeong’s mother shatters the patriarchal order into which she has been forced to integrate; this mute protest, without her conscious intention, proves to be a rebellious and liberating action that refuses the traditional role of the sacrificing mother/wife. Her desire for expressing herself explodes when she feels that she cannot endure cleaning her sick husband’s wastes; the desire draws her toward the place where meaning collapses, the border where the distinction between the food and the cosmetic cream for scalp, between discharging function and the operation of a medicine, dissolves. The sickening, smelly, loathsome, meaningless body of A-Jeong’s mother provokes nausea from the audience as well as ridicule from her daughter, but it quickly crushes the audience’s fixed idea of the selfless caring mother. The grotesque, horrible body deeply affects the audience in a negative way, but has the force to overthrow the conventional concept of motherhood. It is ironic that A-jeong’s uneducated mother with her filthy body, and her inability to become integrated in the symbolic system, can play a more rebellious role than the so-called feminist writer A-jeong.

    On the other hand, the pathetic mother, a disoriented figure in blue plastic sandals in Please Look After Mom epitomizes the daughter’s pity for her absent mother. The homeless mother with blue plastic sandals and a pus-filled wound on her feet, attracting flies and eating out of restaurant dustbins (a horrible image from the stories of several eyewitnesses in Scene 2, titled “A Woman with Blue Plastic Sandals”), awakens the daughter (and the son as well) to feel limitless guilt and sorrow for their mother. In the final scene, So-nyo the ghost, a most pathetic figure, appears wearing blue plastic sandals on the stage, with disheveled hair in an old and shabby dress, to be consoled by Eun-kyu, her secret lover, and then her own mother. This final image emphasizes how much So-nyo has suffered and how much she has needed comfort.

    Unlike the horrible mother in Mayonnaise, this pathetic mother image in Please Look After Mom (an image of a dirty, disheveled, old woman hobbling along on feet that have been cut to the bone by plastic sandals) inspires pity and feelings of guilt sufficient to identify her as a religious figure: the pathetic mother is elevated to a lofty religious realm, resembling the Virgin Mother in Catholicism. Like the Virgin Mother, who is willing to be victimized, So-nyo has been satisfied as long as there was plenty of sweat, headache, and heartache. She was truly attached to her horrible fate; So-nyo is like the Virgin Mary, the unique woman whose status “is attained only through an exacerbated masochism” as Kristeva argues (“Stabat Mater” 181). She is actually identified as the Virgin Mary by her daughter Chi-hon, who buys the rose rosary, at a Vatican Catholic Church, for her mom who, according to the store nun, “thought her life was a prayer for her children.”

    Like the repulsive body of A-jeong’s mom, however, So-nyo’s wounded feet are also representative of the abject body, the repulsive embodiment of a masochistic mother who is tied to suffering, illness, sacrifice and downfall. The wretched representation, so utterly degraded by a limping leg, a pus-filled wound, worn out slippers, rags, and tangled hair, emphasizes the exceeding poverty, weakness, and sickness that evoke both an excessive concern and an excessive pity (too excessive to feel pleasant). The dirty wounded body “swarming with flies” that “is too miserable to look at” (which Chi-hon and her elder brother in Scene 2 are hearing from the eyewitnesses and which the audience sees in the final scene) is the abject similar to “a wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat” that Kristeva describes, a border in which “[one] live[s], until, from loss to loss, nothing remains,” and an in-betweenness which disturbs identity, system, order, drawing attention to the fragility of the law” (Powers of Horror 3-4).

    At the same time, without threat, the wounded, abominable, abject body shows what So-nyo withstands with difficulty, what is rejected from her life, admonishing the characters and the audience for their fault in not acknowledging her desire for rest, comfort, pleasure, sexual love, and embellishments. The body, beyond the unpleasantness of abjection, comes so boldly up against the imperative ideal as to make impossible that the audience should maintain the status quo idea of motherhood.

    It is significant to note that So-nyo the ghost is visible only to the audience; she is invisible to her daughter and her family members. It means that So-nyo’s daughter, Chi-hon, and So-nyo’s other children are excluded from those who are enlightened to see that the absent, ideal mother is a mere fantasy. In this sense, Chi-hon is similar to A-jeong who is more conservative than her mother in her pursuit of the ideal mother. Chi-hon is different from A-jeong in that she expresses her belated love and respect for the lost mother and makes an effort to remember her mother. However, Chi-hon also recalls her mother as the sacred one who sacrificed her life for her children. In this myth-making process, Chi-hon, like A-jeong, supports and upholds the patriarchal symbolic order, which mystifies mothers. On the other hand A-jeong’s and Chi-hon’s mothers, through their disgusting, horrifying bodies, the abject bodies that threaten patriarchal law, express their disruptive forces to shatter what Lacan calls the Law of the Father. Caputi’s summary of Kristeva’s abject can be accurately applied to the embodiment of the two mothers:

    In an interview (conducted by me on June 18, 2012), playwright Ko Yeon-ok emphasized that she changed the sacred mother represented in Shin Kyung-sook’s original novel, Please Look After Mom, into an existential mother who passes through the life cycle from a young girl through the sacrificing mother to death. Because of this, Ko omitted the dramatization of the final part of the original novel articulated by Chi-hon at the Vatican, where the idealization of the holy mother is completed; Ko also deleted So-nyo’s social community activities because for Ko, this excessive goodness only contributed to making So-nyo holy; instead, Ko inserted a scene where Chi-hon buys a rose rosary to remember her mother and the nun tells Chi-hon not to forget her mother. Yet despite Ko’s intention, the play is still full of mythic elements: Chi-hon buys a rose rosary, the symbol of the holy Virgin Mother at the Vatican; mostly, she does not remember her mom’s happiest days, but instead her mother’s painful experience.

    In both of these Korean plays, Kristeva’s crucial concept of motherhood as defined “Stabat Mater” can be found:

    Generally the original novels Mayonnaise and Please Look After Mom have been praised, respectively, for the dismantlement of traditional motherhood (in the case of Mayonnaise) or the ethical emphasis on sacred motherhood and its creative narrative techniques (in the case of Please Look After Mom).11 But unlike the novel Mayonnaise, the novel Please Look After Mom has been subjected to severe criticisms. For example, Cho Young-il, a Korean critic, criticized it harshly as “a soap opera that means not the rebirth of Korean literature, but its fall” (273); Maureen Corrigan in America also attacked the novel as “a manipulative sob sister melodrama.”12 But if Cho and Corrigan can get a chance to watch the abject body of So-nyo represented on stage, they might see there the potential to subvert the mythical concept of motherhood beyond all the adoration and mythologizing and change their negative views.

    11For the domestic and foreign critical receptions of Shin’s novel, see Lee Hyung-jin’s article, “Perspectives of Translation Evaluation in the Book Reviews of Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom.”  12See NPR Fresh Air broadcast for Maureen Corrigan’s decidedly negative review of Shin Kyung-sook’s novel Please Look After Mom.

  • 1. Barnes Joshua 2011 “Please Look After Mom: An Interview with Kyung-sook Shin.” Samposonia Way. google
  • 2. Caputi Mary (1993) “The Abject Maternal: Kristeva’s Theoretical Consistency” (Julia Kristeva). [Women and Language] Vol.16 P.32-38 google
  • 3. Cho Young-il 2009 Korean Literature and its Enemies (Hankook Munhak Kwa Geu Jeokdeul). google
  • 4. Chun Hye-sung 1997 Mayonnaise. google
  • 5. Corrigan Maureen “Please Look After Mom: A Guilt Trip to the Big City.” google
  • 6. Ko Yeon-ok 2010 Please Look after Me. google
  • 7. Ko Yeon-ok 2012 Personal Interview. google
  • 8. Kristeva Julia “Stabat Mater.” 1977. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. P.160-87 google
  • 9. Kristeva Julia 1982 Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. google
  • 10. Lee Hyung-jin (2011) “Perspectives of Translation Evaluation in the Book Reviews of Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom.” [The Comparative Study of World] Vol.37 P.303-28 google
  • 11. Lee Yoon-ju 2009 “Eternal Sanctuary in the Age of Anxiety.” google
  • 12. Rich Adrienne 1986 Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. 1976. google
  • 13. Shin Kyung-sook 2013 “Creating the Stories Using Korean Traditional Heritage.” google