From the first scene of Bong Joon-ho’s latest movie, Mother, where we see the titular character swaying and dancing in the hay field, we instantly intuit two things. One is Bong’s unique directorial trademark that presents, as in his brilliant 2003 crime thriller, Memories of Murder, a visual splendor of Korea’s countryside that will counter the odd eccentricities, pleasant or not, of the people who reside there. The other is that this will be no ordinary tale of maternal love as her subtly off-kilter movements in the field already start to play to and against the public image of its main actress, Kim Hye-ja, who has had one of the longest careers of playing mother roles in Korea.
The play on Kim’s public image feels more pointed and enhanced by the fact that her character is never given a name and is simply known as Do-joon’s mother throughout the film. As the movie opens, we see that her son, Do-joon (Won Bin) is a 23-year-old, mentally handicapped man whom his mother refuses to lose sight of. Because of his condition, she is fiercely and almost obsessively overprotective of her son and believes that she must help him in just about everything from feeding him medicine to even tying his shoe. That certainly seems to be truer when he sustains a minor injury in an abrupt hit-and-run incident and when she must rescue him from a police station after he gets into some trouble with the law after Jin-tae (Jin Ku), who claims to be his best friend but appears to have a bad boy streak in him, has gotten him to provoke and even physically beat some rich, haughty golfers.
That is nothing, however, compared to the more serious trouble he gets into soon thereafter when he is suddenly arrested for the murder of a local teenage girl whose body was found on a rooftop. The police suspect that there was rape involved as well and have simply pointed the finger at Do-joon after finding a ping-pong ball with his name inscribed on it. They think it is an open and shut case and quickly get a signed confession out of him without care as to whether Do-joon knows what he is really signing. His mother, however, firmly believes that her son is not capable of committing such a horrible crime and so she sets out to find the real killer herself while her son sits idly in jail.
The premise at its core, like the very little seen The Deep End with the wonderful Tilda Swinton, is the maternal extension of the Hitchcockian wronged man story. Bong’s movie has a deceptively simpler story than the Rubik’s cube plot that The Deep End surrounded its lead with but his more direct and ironic approach enhances the emotionality of both the mother’s quest and the central murder mystery. It would be unfair to even hint at the specific mechanics of how Bong plays the details of his mystery with and against his typical sense of irony that is pushed this time to greater and more overt extremes. I will say that I was happy to actually be fooled and blindsided, for once, by where the film ultimately ends up and fooled so because of clever misdirection, not needless concealment or cheating.
As with the past film from Bong, many of the movie’s strengths are in the tiny details, even if it does not quite have as much of the cutting, deeper social commentary of South Korea’s countryside that Memories of Murder had (although it does not necessarily need it). Some of them are in the dark comedy he gets from occasionally tipping the realistic observations of the situation to just the brink of histrionic and make us wince while we laugh (such as in the crinkles he adds to the expected social prejudice against Do-joon and his mother). Others are in the ways he plays again with both movie and social clichés and the mother is able to find allies in the most unlikely people including the local photo developer wonderfully played by the always underrated Jeon Mi-Seon (who played Song Kang-ho’s girlfriend in Memories of Murder). Also watch for the significance of the mother’s needle kit and how each application carries such different physical and emotional weights.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is that Bong has somehow extracted what is arguably the most subtle and delicate performance in Kim Hye-ja’s long career. Kim is well known for her histrionically frenzied and often way over the top acting style in playing very pushy maternal characters and, to be sure, you will certainly catch a handful of times when she shows that widening crazy eyed look of hers here. But even those instances are very carefully reined in and controlled and much of the rest of the movie is in the way she utilizes her aging face to play such different emotional speeds from unyielding maternal love to indomitability through haggardness.
The same goes for Won Bin who gives the best performance to date and abandons his pretty boy looks from past movies to play her mentally handicapped young son without judging or condescending to it. His role, of course, is more limited than Kim’s but is responsible for two very tricky dramatic shifts in his relationship with his mother that he avoids sentimentalizing by playing the notes with as much dull dispassion as hidden agony. The other supporting performances from Jin Ku playing the best friend to Jeon Mi-seon playing the local photo developer are also quite tricky as they present characters that both may or may not plausibly be allies to the mother character, if they should be at all.
For director Bong, Mother is a shrewdly modest story after his 2006 megahit, The Host (which is the highest grossing film in South Korea to date). But it proves yet again, like Memories of Murder, how few directors can match him in blending the artistic and the commercial; to craft a story that makes its own eccentricities so matter-of-factly and yet stylishly accessible while brewing the audience slowly with the hidden depths it unveils. Bong said he wanted to explore how far a mother’s fierce love will go and when we later see the mother dancing again, we understand and are unsettled by what he means.
Bottom line: Pretty close to brilliance.