Living in the US it’s easy to forget how many fantastic film directors there are currently living and working elsewhere in the world. Their movies rarely reach our theaters, so when they do it’s imperative (a moral imperative dammit!) that we support them… it’s win/win as we get to see and enjoy great film-making, and the distributors get to see there’s an audience for movies that require reading comprehension. South Korea has had a fairly consistent output over recent years thanks in no small part to a handful of directors (like Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and Kim Ji-woon) who’ve yet to release a film that’s anything less than stellar. And yes, I’m having to pretend that I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK was directed by Smithee Alan-ho…
A mother (Kim Hye-ja) watches as her adult son waves at her from across the street. She’s focused on him instead of her task at hand, cutting dry herb stalks with a large knife, and when he gets grazed by a passing car she rushes out with such concern that she never even registers she’s just sliced her finger with the blade. That singular devotion becomes her driving force when Do-joon (Won Bin) gets accused of murdering a teenage girl on his way home from a bar one night. He’s arrested on circumstantial evidence and judged guilty by the court of public opinion, but his mother refuses to believe their version of events. She sets out on her own to find the truth and prove her son’s innocence by any means necessary, and she soon discovers a trail of deception and sexual deviance that runs through the darkest corners of town.
What’s the mother of a lovable goofball son to do?
Bong Joon-ho returns to familiar thematic territory with Mother as he revisits the dark mystery, police ineptitude, and secret lives he explored in his second movie, Memories of Murder. This film takes a different path though as instead of focusing on the violent and confused efforts of law enforcement we watch as a small but devoted older woman takes matters into her own hands. She’s almost as fearless as the police as she digs her nose into the small-town gossip surrounding the victim, confronts young thugs, and walks willingly into the den of a possible killer. But her actions aren’t based strictly on a need for justice or a sense of right and wrong… they’re powered by a combination of limitless love and secret guilt.
There’s a mystery at the heart of Mother, more than one actually, but the element that will hold your attention through to the end is more than just suspense. It’s the character. The heart and soul of Mother can be found in its lead actress, Kim Hye-ja. Known in Korea for playing matronly roles, albeit more traditional ones, Kim tears into her character with a terrific blend of concern, determination, and intensity. The tone of her voice and the look in her eyes tell us so much more than dialogue alone could ever convey.
The fact that our protagonist is a woman, an elderly one at that, changes the entire dynamic of what otherwise could have easily become a more traditional and standard revenge mystery. A more masculine hero would have beat his way through town in an attempt to discover the truth and clear his child’s name, but Do-joon’s mother doesn’t have that option. Instead she’s forced to improvise with wit, forced sympathy, and sheer will power. The viewer’s allegiance aligns with her so a suspect in her eyes is one in ours as well, and Bong uses that to his advantage as he sends the woman (and his viewers) on a journey filled will false leads, doubt, and danger.
We first meet her standing in a field moments before she suddenly begins to sway and dance to music only she can hear. It immediately sets a tone of uncertainty that will weave its way throughout the movie, but it’s one familiar to fans of Bong’s work and to Korean cinema in general. That tone, and the opening scene in particular, may be off-putting or confusing to Western audiences at first. But the cloud should last only long enough to ease our way into a world that seems foreign but soon reveals itself to be about familiar emotions and concerns. The film’s ending carries on a bit longer than some folks may find necessary, but it’s a fitting denouement to an unexpected and harrowing journey.
Mother is a dark, twisted, and surprisingly humorous look at familial devotion under extreme conditions. It’s also one more excellent film from a director that has yet to make anything less. Bong Joon-ho masterfully combines a beautiful visual style and the ugliness found within humanity to create something exhilarating and sorrowful. His camera peers into dimly lit windows just as easily as it does into the human soul, and he manages to make the mundane just as beautiful as the extraordinary.
Mother is currently playing in limited release. It’s also available on import DVD and Blu-ray.
The Upside: Darkly humorous; suspenseful and unexpected; beautifully acted by Kim Hye-ja; atmospheric and twisted
The Downside: May run a bit too long and a bit too slow for some viewers
On the Side: Director Bong Joon-ho first spoke with lead actress Kim Hye-ja about the role six years ago. He says that she was the only actress he wanted for the part, and that if she had not been interested the movie would never have been made.