A director finds his muse in a devoted materfamilias
by Jason Blair
MOTHER: Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Written by Joon-ho and Park Eun-kyo. Cinematography, Hong Kyeong-pyo. Music, Lee Byung Woo. Starring Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin and Jin Goo. Magnolia Pictures, 2010. R. 128 minutes.
When we first encounter Do-joon (Won Bin), he’s playing outside his mother’s apothecary shop. Inside, his unnamed mother watches him closely, her hands dicing herbs with a firm, practiced motion. Despite her proximity, her perspective is distant and tunnel-like — the entrance to her store is a long, narrow hall — suggesting her son isn’t as close as he appears. Sure enough, Do-joon is nicked by a passing car, a hit-and-run that sets in motion a series of events that are as dazzling as they are unpredictable. In her confusion, Do-joon’s mother (Kim Hye-ja) finds some blood on her hand and cries out. To anyone with a passing familiarity with Macbeth, a bloody hand is a sign of evildoing, but director Bong Joon-ho (The Host) is getting at something more subtle: In Mother, when the child gets cut, the mom bleeds. And you thought your mother was overprotective.
Mother is one the most arresting and unforgettable films I’ve ever seen. It begins furtively, hinting at a number of possible paths, from incest to recovered memories to the plight of the mentally disadvantaged, then finally settles into a murder mystery with elements of revenge and a touch of the surreal. Technically, the film is a masterpiece, with several scenes — including Do-joon’s interrogation by police and the mother’s tiptoe escape from an occupied bedroom — deserving of a shot-by-shot breakdown, but tonally is where Mother behaves like no other film. The film is gentle, even sweet, despite the difficulty of its material; it’s also frequently hilarious. It’s like watching a Haruki Murakamki novel projected through the lens of Alfred Hitchcock. With his ability to support farce and maintain a lightness of tone within a thrilling and even mildly horrific story, director Bong has to be considered a major director in any language.
When Do-joon is accused of killing a classmate, he’s quickly incarcerated by the provincial police. Thus he spends most of Mother in jail, fighting his memories of the night in question, while his mother sets out to solve the case on her own. A large reason for the achievement of Mother is Kim Hye-ja, a well known actress in South Korean television serials. Her performance in Mother is so focused, so possessed, that at times, I was under the impression she was in a trance. She is an actress playing a mother who must learn how to become an actress. For much of Mother, she’s ignored or misunderstood, an outcast for the alleged deeds of her son. But she’s also underestimated by everyone she meets. While her son slowly recovers his memories of the incident, she gradually untangles the events of his case. By the end, she reaches a place from which she can’t ever return. Or can she?
Recently, disappointed by the conventional Date Night, I asked for more weirdness from films. Bong Joon-ho’s Mother answers my prayers. I can’t remember being so satisfied by a film whose trajectory was so impossible to predict. Considering Bong is only 40 years old, Mother might be an early glimpse of even more originality to come.
Mother opens at 9:30 pm Saturday, May 8, at the Bijou, as part of Cinema Pacific. Regular screenings begin on Sunday, May 9.