And You Thought Your "Mother" Was a Monster
By Ethan Gates '12, Arts and Living Editor
I was introduced to the work of Korean director Bong Joon-ho about a year ago, when I first saw his delightfully surprising monster movie “The Host.” As with all the best examples of the genre, “The Host” is not really just about a monster on the loose (although the creature’s opening rampage through a riverside park is more brilliantly executed than anything you’ll ever find in a standard horror flick), but a thoughtful look at generational conflict and traditional family values in Korean society. Watching his earlier film “Memories of Murder” not long after has confirmed that Bong has a serious knack for creating suspenseful, thoughtful, entertaining thrillers, quickly rocketing him into the ranks of the world’s must-see filmmakers.

Bong’s new film “Mother,” South Korea’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of this year’s Academy Awards, is an extremely worthy follow-up to those genre standouts. A sort of spiritual successor to “Memories of Murder,” “Mother” essentially takes one of the plot points of that earlier movie and expands on it, adding to and twisting the story so that the film hardly ends up feeling like a retread. Do-joon (Won Bin), a young simpleton who still lives with his mother, is accused of murdering a local girl. After being intimidated by police, Do-joon admits to the crime (all this will sound familiar to viewers of “Memories of Murder”).

Do-joon’s mother (Kim Hye-ja, never given a character name) is convinced that her son has been framed. She pleads with the police, and one investigator is quite sympathetic to her plight. He, too, is not so sure that someone as slow and confused as Do-joon (Do-joon’s level of mental disability is never clear — he certainly recognizes, and becomes infuriated by, the insult of “retard” frequently hurled his way) could commit murder. Still, his hands are tied: a golf ball with Do-joon’s name on it, which we have seen Do-joon gathering earlier, was found next to the victim. The mother, increasingly obsessed with freeing her son, sets out to find the real killer. She has only one lead: lately Do-joon had been hanging around with a neighborhood tough, Jin-tae (Jin Ku).

We follow the mother as she tirelessly pursues the few clues available to her. We learn everything she does as she interrogates various characters (who are anything but the stereotypical, stockpiled caricatures you’ll often find in such crime films), sometimes making use of her expert knowledge of herbal medicine and acupuncture. We share in every twist and turn of the plot, as Bong weaves a tale that is intricate, occasionally absurd, often shocking but never predictable. Bong’s great talent as a filmmaker lies in creating stories and characters that somehow feel completely natural, even in the most bizarre and extreme of circumstances.

Now, having written that, “natural” may not quite be the right word to describe “Mother.” The characters in the film are nothing if not quixotic, prone to sudden outbursts of action that are not always entirely explainable, sometimes leading to a frustrating sense of vagueness. Under close examination, one too many plot points seem to hinge on luck and coincidence. There is never any doubt that we are watching a constructed, manipulated story, even if the visual pleasure and sleek storytelling offered by Bong’s style makes us more than willing to play along.

In any case, the film’s strengths greatly outweigh these fairly trifling reservations. A first-time viewer of Bong’s work will likely be struck by the director’s very unique brand of black humor. Even in the darkest, most violent moments of “Mother,” Bong often finds the time for a grim smirk or two. This subtle attitude of irreverence is critical in defining what separates Bong from similar filmmakers: while his films are certainly intelligent and thought-provoking, they are primarily entertainment, and he never loses sight of that.

Above all, the film is fittingly dominated by the performance of Kim Hye-ja as the title character. Kim walks an extremely fine line, evoking sympathy for the driven, caring mother even as she seems to be edging closer and closer to insanity. She becomes less of an individual and more of a force, the pure embodiment of parental love (and all of its dangerous potential).

If you’re a fan of the moody, atmospheric thrillers of David Fincher (“Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “Zodiac”) or have enjoyed any of the other recent examples of the New Korean wave of films (“Oldboy,” “The Chaser”), you owe it to yourself to check out “Mother.” Bong Joon-ho treats genre filmmaking as an art, not a science. He refuses to resort to formulas, instead daring the viewer to keep up with him through wild plot turns. But no matter how surprising or even random some events may seem, they clearly reflect precise planning and execution on Bong’s part: for instance, the spilling of blood is foreshadowed early on by an overturned water bottle. Bong takes the audience to places they don’t expect to go, and he refuses to do it through tricks or gimmickry. His characters reside in a world of gray morality; it can never be said for certain that the ends justify the means, but Bong makes damn sure that the means always, always, justify the ends.

Issue 21, Submitted 2010-04-07 00:13:57