'Mother' Returns Bong Joon-Ho To Crime, And HOW

Directed by: Bong Joon-ho, Runtime: 128
Grade: A-

Korean director Bong Joon-ho has an eye for tension, cramming edgy suspense and raw spirit into his pictures, but what takes his work a step beyond comes in his understanding of the pain within family and community. Memories of Murder finds footing with its gritty tone by enacting a nail-biter witch-hunt for a murderer in a small town, while the strongest moments in his Jaws-like picture The Host exist in the familial search for the lead character's daughter in the pit of a monster's lair. Mother, the director's latest mystery, tackles that paternal angle in a more direct manner, focusing on the lengths that a parent will go to preserve the innocence of their child. Much like his other pictures, Bong Joon-ho nimbly mixes eccentricity with suspense to soften its severity, yet the straightforward focus he's concocted here pins the picture's success on the performance of, naturally, the mother. Thankfully, he's found an exceptionally good one.

She, played by TV vet Kim Hye-ja, is a small-town mother who smothers her mentally challenged twenty-something son Do-joon (Won Bin), a stay-at-home boy who goes in and out of the local police station because of his scatterbrained activities. He's been manageable -- mounting debts aside that his mother pays off by way of her grain selling job and off-the-cuff acupuncture sessions -- until he gets wrapped up in a murder case involving a local schoolgirl, one where he's the prime suspect. As the police crowbar him in place as the murderer, with a signed affidavit to practically close the case, it's up to the boy's mother to discover the truth. She finds herself sneaking into houses, tromping into a victim's funeral, slinging herbal remedies as payment and navigating through the town's alleyways in search of answers, all with her eyes wide open as she sinks further away from her element. She may be sheepish, but she's also resilient.

Feeding off the same vein of tension as the veritable crime thriller Memories of Murder, Mother taps into a gripping authenticity that'd suggest something of a true story throughout its build-up -- even if it's an original work from Bong Joon-ho and two collaborators. As we follow the mother along her out-of-element sleuthing, rigidly jogging through alleyways and along dirt roads to the maximum of her age's capabilities, the film's composition grasps an earthy beauty that elegantly captures an electric tone. Amid her hunt, suggestive seeds are deliberately planted to steer us towards a viable conclusion, perhaps so well that the director has transformed a tried-and-true thriller into more of an effectual pins-'n-needles drama with anticipated twists and turns. This isn't so much a picture to watch for persistent revelations, but one to absorb for the realism in subtle thrills within a cramped societal cage.

While the director's other films are more driven by ensembles, this one finds a raw energy behind the thrust of one character -- this unnamed mother. A clever, fluidly moving script has been put into motion around her, but it'd be a different picture without Kim Hye-ja's nuance. She exacts precision within that naive resourcefulness we'd expect from a penniless, adoring woman looking to free the suspicion underneath her challenged son, tapping into darker recesses than most would expect of her. Most of her magnetism resides in her eyes, endlessly open as she delves deeper into the mystery, all while her shambling vocals ask piercing questions to her clueless child, his profiteering, slightly mean-spirited friend Jin-tae, and other potential "witnesses". What's more, our director also grasps her awkwardness in these situations, using Kim Hye-ja's genuineness as a springboard for wit where it normally wouldn't be found -- such as when she preserves a "murder weapon" from the rain as she walks to the police station. She's brilliant.

Once the film tosses the son into police custody, somewhat purposefully out of the way, and focuses on the mother's hunt for the truth, Mother finds its bearings as a whodunit that descends into the ugliness that can even cloud the likes of a small town. Thematically, much else isn't really said about the devotion of a parent to an endangered child, other than the lengths they'll go are boundless and, under the right circumstances, merciless; but the splintering sway of the humanity as it succumbs to opportunism, sexual deviance, and a disheartening veer towards inaction are chillingly observed here -- right before the mother's eyes. Yet, again, the way all the twists uncoil latches so firmly onto logic and elegant filmmaking that these simple aims are given gut-swelling weight, more for their realism than their novelty.

This becomes important in the third act, where everything snaps together into a blaze of revelations that impeccably ties to the film's well-sewn suspicions. Moral grayness and guilt become the facets that drive the final moments of Bong Joon-ho's picture, made powerful by all the elements -- especially Kim Hye-ja -- that wryly dragged us through a world of suspicion up until this point. He's an exceptional storyteller who knows the boundaries of our perception of both decency and empathy, and he plays to that awareness as the complication heightens. Mother is, in fact, a complex picture, predicated on manipulating our perception of the film's emotional texture instead of any sort of bends-around-the-corner suspense. And with its bizarre, effectual final moments, ones that finely wrap around to the odd beginnings of "Mother" dancing for us in a grassy field at the film's start, it justifies this intricacy.


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