Review of Mother

Mother (2009)
8/10
An extra-loyal mom
1 October 2009
Bong Joon-ho's new film is built around actors. The starting point of it is Kim Hye-ja, 'grande dame' of Korean acting (around whom the screenplay by Bong and Park Eun-kyo is built), who gets a chance to break away from the long-suffering, boundlessly loving mother image she maintains in the long-running "Rustic Diary" TV series to embrace a juicier, darker, richer role. Likewise Won Bin, whose pretty-boy looks have gotten him gangster and perfect son casting, here becomes the slack-jawed, unpredictable Do-joon, a "retard," not taken seriously by most of the town, but zealously protected by his apothecary mom (Kim), who even sleeps in the same bed with him, though he's 27. Both the mother's and son's roles are challenging. Kim Hye-ja shows an incredible emotional range within a de-glamorized exterior, and Won Bin subtly side-steps dumb-guy shtick, managing to keep Do-joon lastingly unpredictable and mysterious.

Do-joon has a run-in with the police after he and his friend Jin-tae (Jin Gu) hassle some fat cats at the golf club after one of them hits Do-joon with his Mercedes and doesn't stop. Simple Do-joon brags about being at the police station, but then gets drunk, brooding about the way Jin-tae ribs him for being a virgin and wanting to get laid. Then that same night Ah-jong, a schoolgirl, is found with her head bashed in and Do-joon becomes the prime suspect. His case seems hopeless, but his aging mother, convinced that Do-joon would never hurt a fly, takes it upon herself to conduct her own investigation of the case, which neither the cops nor the fancy lawyer she has engaged are interested in. This story carries its mother-son relationship well beyond the usual. There is no extent to which this mom won't go to protect and exonerate her son, and some of the memories that are dredged up are troubling indeed.

In some aspects 'Mother' reaches back to Bong's 2003 '80's-set police procedural 'Memories of Murder,' particularly to its sensitive development of a small-town milieu. But this film is also full of comic aspects like the director's later international success 'The Host' (2006, also a NYFf selection). The focus on mysterious, isolated people relates to the main character in Bong's top-drawer segment of the 2008 'Tokyo!' trilogy, "Shaking Tokyo." Cell phone cameras, autographed golf balls, and acupuncture also play key roles in the story, which is full of interesting twists and turns. A major turnaround comes from Do-joon's bad-boy friend Jin-tae, whose true role we have no idea of at first.

Bong explodes the image of the ideal mother and as usual, bends genres in this new effort. At times this might seem a twisted psychological thriller with links to Douglas Sirk and Sam Fuller, and the occasionally old-fashioned movie music by Lee Byeong-woo, traditionally surging at key points, reinforces that impression. Ryu Seong-hie, the production designer, has worked extensively with Park Chan-wook, and d.p. Hong Gyeong-pyo does a superb job in integrating the looks of a wide variety of locations. This is highly sophisticated Korean cinema at its technical best.

We can't possibly reveal the outcome: the essence of 'Mother' is that its plot is packed with surprises. Perhaps indeed there are a few too many: the last ten minutes introduce further twists after the surprise climax that might better have been omitted. For all the great look, terrific acting, and explosive plot twists, I'm not sure this is up to the best of Bong Joon-ho's previous work. It's fun and entertaining especially at the outset and watchable throughout, but Bong and Park's screenplay meanders a bit. The film's inclusion in the 2009 New York Film Festival may owe more to timing, to the bloom that's still upon Korean cinema, and to Bong's status as an alumnus of the festival, than to the film's intrinsic merit. (Hong Sang-soo, a NYFF favorite, despite a new film that's received raves, is omitted this year. His 2008 NYFF Paris-based entry was somewhat lackluster. . .)

Bong's 'Mother'/'Madeo' was included in the "Un Certain Regard" series at Cannes, and shown as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center 2009.

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