Unstoppable ‘Mother’ fights for son in acute Korean mystery thriller
Don’t go to the movies of South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho expecting the ordinary. While tales of maternal devotion have been a staple of human drama (and cinema) from Ma Joad to Stella Dallas to Lily Potter, what Bong brings to the mother-love genre in his absorbing thriller, Mother, is a virtuoso mix of dynamic action, precisely rendered emotions, and a complex worldview that both satirizes and mourns the junk and clutter, opportunism and corruption of modern daily life.
Bong is best known stateside for revitalizing the toxic monster movie genre in the 2007 thrill ride, The Host. He brings a somewhat more poetic (but no less kinetic) sensibility to Mother, a survivor’s tale that’s part Asian-noir mystery, and part heroine’s journey. The title character, who has no other name (everyone in the film just calls her “Mom”) is played with extraordinary grace, grit and fortitude by the wonderful Korean actress Kim Hye-ja; she is both the center of the story and the vital heart of the film.
A longtime single parent, this mother makes a very modest living dabbling in herbal remedies and acupuncture (without a license) in a small village on the outskirts of Seoul. The center of her life is her only child, twentysomething son Do-joon, whose pretty face masks the impaired brain of a slow-reasoning child (a stoic, affecting performance by Won Bin). Do-joon is old enough to be led into trouble by his shiftless, “bad seed” buddy, Jin-tae (Ku Jin), and stay out late drinking. He often complains about his mom’s smothering attention, but he’s still boy enough to crawl onto her bed and sleep beside her at night.
But the precarious truce mother and son have forged with the uncertainties of life is thrown into chaos when the police arrest Do-joon for murder. The body of a high school girl, still in her school uniform, is found draped over a stone railing overlooking the town in a neighborhood where Do-joon was seen drinking the night before. Everyone in town (including the young police chief) has known Do-joon all his life, and no one considers him violent or dangerous, but circumstantial evidence and proximity, coupled with Do-joon’s frequent memory lapses, render the case closed.
Needless to say, that’s not good enough for Mom. Suspecting a set-up and determined to find the real killer, she launches her own DIY investigation, sneaking into private homes to steal or barter for evidence and information, chatting up teenagers, relatives, and possible suspects, enduring humiliation, abuse, and even extortion. Incriminating cell phone pictures, high-tech digital imaging, a girl tech wizard, a pair of teenage party boys, a cantankerous grandma addicted to rice wine, and an elderly junkman all figure in the case. (As does a slick but useless shyster lawyer. The surreal scene where he delivers his callous opinion of Do-joon’s probable fate while surrounded by stoned hookers and their stuporous elderly clients is straight out of a David Lynch movie.) Along the way, as she unearths bitter truths about the victim, the murder, the world in general, and herself, the intrepid mother becomes a diminutive Rambo (Mombo?) determined to save her son at all costs.
Bong assembles it all with sly humor, gentle heartbreak, and a couple of yowza moments that will leave viewers reeling. Nothing in the scenario plays out exactly as one might expect, and as the plot unspools, Bong adds subtle layers of thematic dimension, pondering everything from the sting of memory (and the allure of forgetfulness) to a mother’s moral imperative to fight for her child.
Indeed, conventional notions of morality are better left to more conventional storytellers. A master of mood, composition, shocking encounters, and tiny revelations that wound like a blade, Bong is carving out a different path as a stylist of the human psyche.
With Kim Hye-ja and Won Bin. Written by Park Eun-kyo, Park Wun-kyo, and Bong Joon-ho. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. A Magnolia release. Rated R. 129 minutes. In Korean with English subtitles.