Mother (2009)

03 February 2011

Guest review: Phil Hogan is based in Atlanta, GA.

In a golden field of wheat, a woman ascends a hilltop and begins to dance during the opening credit sequence of Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother (2009). The dance is slow, however, much like the pacing of this character study that occasionally leans toward the psychological side of a thriller. The director’s previous films include The Host (2006), South Korea’s highest grossing film and hybrid monster movie/comedy that went from being satirical to moments of silliness. Mother feels like a departure from the director’s previous work, evoking a slower style with a story that unfolds with a new revelation around every corner.

The title character is played by Kim Hye-ja in a tour de force performance that slowly builds from vulnerability into a tidal wave of emotions all her own. She is an herbalist who secretly practices acupuncture without a license on some of the women in her village. She mentions throughout the film an acupuncture therapy that takes away all of one’s bad memories from youth. Her grown son appears to be rather … well, no so bright. His condition and own memory tend to be ambiguous, much like the nature between the mother and her son in the film, and the entire genre side of the plot. She is very devoted but also overprotective of her son. And they also sleep in the same bed.

The opening scene depicts Mother watching her son Do-joon play with a dog across the street from her store. He is soon struck by a car, sustaining only a minor injury. The boy’s delinquent friend persuades him to chase after the car to seek revenge, with the viewer soon taken on a golf course confrontation that feels like something from Bottle Rocket (1996). It helps to set the tone for the rest of the film, which takes the viewer on one spin after another, thankfully without the feeling of a cheap cliffhanger. Before too long, Do-Joon is being accused of murder, and Mother finds herself going against the village and performing her own police investigation to prove her son’s innocence. A haunting sequence of Mother attempting to enter the wake of the murdered victim ends with a powerful shot of a drunken relative hurling an empty rum bottle off an otherwise scenic balcony.

Despite its nature to throw in relevant twists every half hour, the film is much slower paced than Joon-Ho’s previous films. Going back and forth between well framed long shots and handheld close-ups, skillful use of silence juxtaposed with an effective musical score, Mother stands out as a moody thriller, a step up from Joon-Ho’s already masterful police procedural Memories of Murder (2003). His work here is more focused, commenting on motherhood in a unique and revealing way. His style feels more assured, trying out new atmospheric touches that make a nose bleed and water spilling across the floor oddly unsettling. In one interrogation scene that rings of Bergman, a dead girl is brought back temporarily to interact with one character in the middle of another scene. It’s hard to describe, and in any other film of this genre, would not work. But here it comes across as endearing.

Mother takes the viewer by surprise, and continues to add layers and plot points that go places completely unexpected, while at the same time never compromising the integrity of its approach and detailed look at the dynamics between mother and son. Despite seeming full of surprises, the film ends very much how it began, with a shot of several women (all mothers) dancing on a moving bus, though shot from a distance and with alternative sound. They dance slow, as if only going through the motions. Their bodies dance, but their minds worry about their children.