Movie Review: Mother
A schoolgirl is killed, her body flung over a rooftop parapet for the world to see. Do-Joon, the town simpleton, physically beautiful but not right in the head and incapable—as his mother says—of hurting as much as a water bug, is arrested and forced to confess by the incompetent, bullying detectives, and it is up to Do-Joon’s devoted eponymous Mother to find the true murderer and bring him to justice.
This classic Hitchcockian wrong-man-accused premise, complete with family and town secrets uncovered, dead ends, surprising plot twists and a series of clues that make perfect sense only in retrospect, is told with director Bong Joon-Ho’s trademark mélange of high comedy, intense suspense, impeccable craftsmanship and stunning cinematography, but what truly grips the viewer from Mother’s first frame to last is the incandescent performance by veteran actress Kim Hye-Ja, long famous in Korea for portraying devoted mother figures, although never one quite like this.
The mother of all overprotective mothers, Do-Joon’s mother feeds and fusses over him as though he is a toddler, but with his addled brain and bad-influence buddy, Do-Joon may need her more than he thinks. Theirs is a codependent, knotty and perverse relationship that raises questions of the boundaries and meanings of all bonds of family love.
Aptly entitled Mother, this film could just as well have appeared under the title of Bong’s amazingly mature sophomore film, Memories of Murder, as both memory and murder play such crucial roles. The 2003Memories of Murder, told from the viewpoint of the bumbling detectives, often veered into hilarity even as the gruesome murders rolled on. This time the detective skills are no better, but we are immersed much deeper, into the viewpoint of the wrongfully accused suspect’s mother, a woman with few resources or confidantes and everything at stake.
The stylistic influence of Hitchcock and Almodovar, both of whose oeuvres are thick with epic mother figures, is richly apparent in Mother—in its taut script, with not an extraneous line or scene, its immaculately composed frames, and its powerfully resonating images. It is, however, Edward Yang and his Taiwanese New Wave cohorts whom Bong has cited as seminal inspirations and like the wonderful Yi Yi, for which Yang won best director at Cannes in 2000, Bong’s work is anchored at all times by a real sense of human connection.
And though they are always rousing entertainments, Bong’s films also act as compelling social commentary, with their subtly expressed but strong undercurrent of feeling for the injustices in South Korean society, particularly the gulf between the haves and the have-nots—from the corrupt academic system that oppresses the young professor protagonist of Bong’s debut Barking Dogs Never Bite, the Gwangju student protests and massacres in Memories of Murder (all the more powerful for occurring in the background and without comment), and the military abuses and governmental callousness in The Host. In Mother, set in a slum neighborhood of a backward town in an unprosperous province, it is the poor single mother, the town junk man and the motherless, hungry girl raised by her drunken grandmother who struggle while fat cat lawyers, doctors and professors prey on them. For those with almost nothing in life, the true divide between have and have not may be those with mothers and those without.
That divide means everything in the final thirty minutes of Mother, which travels far beyond the bounds of murder mystery into a realm of primal emotion. In scenes of devastating poignancy, Kim Hye-Ja’s mother takes us deep into the heart of desperation and maternal love. The gorgeous final image, in which she joins the age-old dance of mothers, seems to last forever, at the same time that you want it never to end.
Although Mother is too dark and monster-free to be a runaway popular hit like The Host, it is an even richer and more rewarding work, by a director whose gifts are growing more assured and eloquent all the time. This flawless, lyrical and profoundly moving film will be one of the best you see all year.