Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Park Eun-kyo, Bong Joon-ho, Park Wun-kyo
Cinematography: Hong Kyung-po
Starring: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin
Studio/Run Time: Magnolia Pictures, 129 mins.
One bad Mother
Fans of contemporary Korean cinema have three leading directors to champion. Park Chan-wook is the cult favorite, with his rage-and-revenge classic Oldboy the standard of a certain kind of hyper-violent mindblower. Kim Ki-duk is more cerebral and contemplative, though he never shies from visceral moments that can turn a viewer white with shock. Bong Joon-ho is known as a comedian, skewering Korean society and the foibles of dysfunctional characters. The Host (2006), his international breakthrough, was something like Little Miss Sunshine if Abigail Breslin’s character had been swallowed alive by a giant mutant tadpole. You want audacious, you got it.
Mother, Bong’s fourth film, sustains his usual themes but skews much darker amid the slapstick. It’s driven by Kim Hye-ja’s performance as the film’s namesake, a seemingly meek and long-suffering figure whose devotion to her only child knows no bounds. Her character (also named Hye-ja) is an herbalist and unlicensed acupuncturist who has raised a mentally disabled son by herself. Do-joon (Bon Win) is an indulgent, infantile 27-year-old who is the village idiot in their provincial town, subjected to mockery and casual violence, yet also prone to drunken antics and misdemeanors. Hye-ja’s relationship with her boy exceeds the usual mother-son norms, creepily epitomized in a scene where she tilts a bowl of broth to her son’s lips as he stands urinating on a street corner. The smother-love goes into overdrive when Do-joon is jailed for the rape and murder of a local schoolgirl, whose body is found near a bar Do-joon had been kicked of the previous night.
Since the cops are arrogant in their negligence and laziness, and their perp feckless and easily bullied, their case is an obvious fraud. When a shady lawyer proves no help, Hye-ja turns detective and the film becomes an unlikely forensics-fest. Taking a cue from Japanese master Shohei Imamura, Bong uses this amateur investigation to smoke out every sort of deadbeat, oddball, nymphomaniac and thug in the vicinity, as Hye-ja goes about collecting evidence. The camera often sits at a detached distance, cool in its observance as things become increasingly unhinged and Hye-ja—in her obsession—proves she will go to any extreme to defend her son.
More so than Bong’s other films, Mother takes the audience’s sympathies and expectations to surprising places. You can easily question if the director’s caricatures of the town’s characters undermine his purpose, or decide that his melodramatic plot twists are too much to sensibly abide. There’s no intellectual rigor behind the curtain, as with, say, the Coen Brothers, probably the closes American analogue to Bong’s filmmaking style. The whole shebang rides on the whirlwind force of Kim’s performance, something no one else is likely to soon repeat.