Friday, March 12, 2010

Review: "Mother"

In the opening shot of Bong Joon-Ho's Mother, an older woman walks out into an expansive, windblown field. It's haunting, almost melancholy, but then she begins to dance. It's a beautiful scene, an image of liberated sadness, of troubles being blown away by the breeze. It sets an interesting tone for the film that follows, and establishes a motif that will be revisited later.

The woman in the field is the never named mother of Do-Joon, played by the brilliant Kim Hye-Ja. Do-Joon (Won Bin) is a bit thick, a shiftless ne'er-do-well who may or may not have some sort of mental disability, who always seems to be in some sort of trouble, and in turn his mother is always cleaning up his messes, even going so far as to mop up his piss after he urinates on a wall while waiting for a ride.

His life takes a fateful turn one day, however, when a car sideswipes him on a sidewalk and speeds away. Angered by the hit and run, Do-Joon and his friend follow the car to a golf course to enact their revenge, setting off a chain of events that leads to Do-Joon being accused of a murder he has no memory of committing.

Kim Hye-Ja in MOTHER, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.


So, determined to prove his innocence and exonerate her son, Do-Joon's mother sets out on an investigation of her own, following leads the police refused to pursue. It is a choice that will lead her down a dark path, one that will take her to dangerous places, and force her to confront shocking secrets even she may not be ready to face.

Like Bong's last film, The Host, Mother is infused with an almost absurdist sense of humor. Make no mistake, this is a dark, often chilling thriller, but everything seems slightly off-kilter. There is an almost Almodovar-ian humor at work here, a sense than anything can, and will happen. Do-Joon is a pitiable, almost comical figure in his incessant, absent minded forgetfulness. He has always been taken care of by his doting mother, and is nearly helpless without her. And even though she is obviously in way over her head, she keeps right on going - a fish out of water in a dark and scary pond.

Kim Hye-Ja and Won Bin in MOTHER, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.


Bong masterfully balances the tone, never letting the horror of the situation overwhelm the film or letting the humor distract from the gravity of the plot. Everything seems perfectly in sync, striking an unusual, slightly off-kilter tone that keeps the audience on edge. Bong's eye for suspense is almost Hitchcockian in its skill, and he handles it with a light touch. Do-Joon is ultimately an unlikable character, but his mother's passion is so powerful and single minded that her quest in many ways becomes the quest of the audience. We want her to prove his innocence more than anything, even if means descending into the depths of darkness herself.

Mother is a movie about the lengths a woman is willing to go for her son. But you will find no false sentimentality here. Its theme of love at all costs comes with a price. Her love for her son is so single minded that it trumps everything else, but at what cost to her and others? Buoyed by Kim's powerful performance, Bong crafts a unique story of motherly love and devotion, and turns it into one fantastic thriller.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MOTHER; Directed by Bong Joon-Ho; Stars Kim Hye-Ja, Won Bin, Ku Jin, Yoon Jae-Moon; Rated R for language, some sexual content, violence and drug use. In Korean w/English subtitles. Opens today, March 12, in limited release.

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