Friday, March 19, 2010

Movie Review: Mother

Mother ****
Directed By:
Bong Joon-ho.
Written By: Park Eun-kyo & Bong Joon-ho.
Starring: Kim Hye-ja (Mother), Won Bin (Do-joon), Jin Goo (Jin-tae), Yoon Je-moon (Je-moon).

For the third feature in a row, Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has made a completely different, completely engrossing movie. Memories of Murder is one of the best police procedurals of the decade – it was Fincher’s Zodiac before that movie was ever released. With his crowd pleasing The Host, he made the best big monster in the water movie since Jaws – mixing dark humor with his scarily intense film. Now comes Mother, a gripping psychological thriller about a mother’s obsessive devotion to her child.

Do-joon (Won Bin) is a little slow. He is obviously mentally challenged in some way, but now in his 20s, he wants desperately to be treated like a man, even though he really just is a kid in a man’s body. It does not help that his mother (Kim Hye-ja) is way too over protective of him. She is a widower with no other children, and just a small shop to call her own. She watches over him incessantly, although it drives him nuts. The two even share a bed together, observed from on high by Bong’s camera. Nothing incestuous is going on mind you, but something weird definitely is.

One day, Do-joon goes down to the local bar and gets drunk, and stumbles home late into the night. The next day the police show up and arrest him for murdering a local high school girl. They are able to draw a confession out of Do-joon using some questionable tactics. Most people would see the game they are trying to pull on them, but Do-joon is too na├»ve and trusting to see what is happening. After he is charged with murder, and put in jail while awaiting trial, he proclaims his innocence to his mother. Mother then tries to get the police, the prosecutors, even her son’s lawyer to listen to her, but they all brush her off. The case is open and shut. Do-joon is guilty.

Mother remains unconvinced. With the help of Do-joon’s one friend, Jin-tae (Jin Good) who is not all that trustworthy himself, she sets about investigating the crime herself to prove her son’s innocence. It appears that the victim was not quite as innocent as she seems. She was in fact known as the town slut – someone who would fuck any guy who gave her something as small as a rice cake. She lived with her grandmother, who spends all of her time (and money) drinking rice wine. The list of potential suspects is huge, as the girl took pictures of all of her lovers on her cell phone, and was getting ready to expose them all – including some people who do not want to be exposed.

But that’s just the plot of the movie, and does not really help to explain what the movie is about. Kim Hye-ja delivers a powerful performance as the mother, who is never named, so obsessively devoted to her child. She has been a TV star in Korea for years, often playing sweetly devoted mothers, but here she turns her image on its head. When the movie starts out, we see a portrait of a woman who will do anything to protect her child. We understand and sympathize with her – after all, wouldn’t you do anything possible to protect your children? But as the movie progresses, and dark secrets are revealed, her true personality comes out. Yes, she is fiercely devoted to her child, but the real question here is why? And would you do what she does in the film’s final act to protect your child? Where is the line between a normal worried reaction to your child, and become so completely obsessed that it borders on mania. We know something is wrong right from the opening scene – a surreal shot of Kim alone in a field, slowly dancing, the look in her eyes inviting you to try and figure her out, but remaining too mysterious to put together.

The performance by Hye-ja is the centerpiece of a movie that is truly one of the best made films of the year. Bong Joon-ho always uses an interesting color scheme in his films, and this one is darker than his others. Even the blood seems more like dark crimson, than bright red. He directs his movie with confidence from beginning to end – even making great use out of the surreal bookends of his film. This was Korea’s official entry into the Foreign Language film race last year, and while it isn’t quite the masterpiece that two films that were nominated were (The White Ribbon and A Prophet), it is much better than the film that won – Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes (which is admittedly, a damn fine thriller itself). Mother continues Bong’s dark streak that he continues to carve through the Korean film landscape. Perhaps what connects his last three films is their focus on families being destroyed, and the offsetting of horrific moments with some interesting, dark comedic beats. No matter what, I think that Bong is the best director working in Korea right now – a country whose filmmaking community has experienced somewhat of a resurgence in the past decade. Mother is a great film.

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