Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Starring Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, and Jin Goo.
While watching Mother, the fourth feature from Bong Joon-ho, a curious thought ran through my mind: what if the characters and plots from his previous three films all existed in the same timeline? One does notice a persuasive vision of South Korean life threading its way through Bong’s work - the not-so-subtle jabs at bureaucratic incompetence, the dichotomy between claustrophobic dwellings and the country’s beautiful, expansive landscapes. Then there’s the inhabitants themselves, those who typically in movies exist on the fringe; lower income class citizens eking out a living, whether it’s the out of work humanities graduate in Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) or the snack bar kiosk owner in The Host (2006). There’s little room for gangsters or the upper echelon in director Bong’s world.
In Mother, an unnamed woman (Kim Hye-ja) is the sole caregiver to her mentally challenged adult son Do-joon. Selling medicinal herbs to make ends meet - as well as offering unlicensed acupuncture to the townsfolk - she dotes over Do-joon around the clock. Little is known about this woman but she seems to have been a maternal figure to many, from the local police inspector to Do-joon’s delinquent friend Jin-tae (Jin Goo). When Do-joon is arrested for murdering a schoolgirl based on loose circumstantial evidence, the mother takes up the mantle of detective to clear this name and find the real culprit.
A whodunit set amid a quiet unassuming village, inevitable comparisons will be made against Bong’s 2003 classic Memories of Murder. Here the police detectives are just as over their heads and quick to pin blame on a suspect unable to properly defend himself. But Mother doesn’t have its predecessor’s extraordinary tonal shifts nor its suspenseful and overwhelming sense of dread. The mother’s investigation instead peels back the layers Rashomon-style until all the pieces fit. There’s the irony of course: in Memories of Murder, the tragedy stems from the unresolved; with Mother, resolution is what leads to the narrative’s final tragic figure. Is the film as good as Memories of Murder? Under that measuring stick, it comes up short. Nonetheless Kim Hye-ja gives a sublime performance as a parent sacrificing all for her child, her eyes revealing frailty one moment, fanaticism the next.
Make no mistake, Mother is an accomplished work from a director on a creative roll. Bong and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo fill the screen with vivid, saturated textures to create a hyper-realistic, lived-in environment rife with tension and the unpredictable. As a storyteller Bong doesn’t go for sadistic thrills or try to outdo violence with violence. He’s intrigued rather by how characters react under extreme duress as well as the way we the audience perceive these individuals. Mother begins with Kim Hye-ja walking slowly towards us through a sun-dried field and just as she reaches the camera, she stops in place, breaking into a uninhibited dance. What should we make of this? Will this influence our attitude going forward? It’s a daring litmus test applied by one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.