Although his resume spans only four features to date (as well as a contribution to multi-filmmaker collaboration Tokyo!), Korean director Bong Joon-ho has had a rather prolific and varied career over the past decade. He may be best known for monster movie The Host - which was seen in record numbers in South Korea, with over thirteen million tickets sold in the country alone - however his two preceding films Memories of Murder and Barking Dogs Never Bite spanned different genres - serial killer thriller and social satire - to critical acclaim. Joon-ho's latest work, the award-winning Mother starring Kim Hye-ja in the title role, hails back to his earlier pieces, offering up a psychological murder mystery grounded within a family dynamic of Hitchcockian proportions - the tempestuous bond between a mother and her son.
Mother opens in a fashion akin to the best of David Lynch (recalling Twin Peaks in particular), with the titular character of Mother (Hye-ja, in her first role of this scale across a thirty-year, four-production career) dancing alone in a field of crops. It is an unusual opening, but a fitting one, for what follows is a beautiful yet sinister retelling of the events leading to that point. Part crime drama, part detective thriller, but completely a story about a mother's undying devotion for her offspring, Mother explores the difference between the perception and reality of events and emotions, and this hauntingly prophetic opening sequence - mirrored in the closing moments of the feature - deserves to remain trapped in the minds of the viewers, not only for the duration of the film, but for days after watching.
A hard-working acupuncturist and herbalist within her village, Mother has devoted her life to caring for her son, Do-joon (Won Bin, Brotherhood). Although he's reached his mid-twenties, Do-joon is not quite the same as other men his age - his manner is naive and childlike, his actions foolish bordering on dangerous, his friends are few and far between, and his sole obsession is pursuing members of the opposite sex (mostly teen-aged school girls). He also shares a relationship with his mother that can only be classed as unique - they sleep curled up together in the same bed, she helps him digest his food ("I can eat this myself," he protests), and she even feeds him soup as he stands by a wall to relieve himself.
Do-joon comes to the attention of the local police force as the victim of a hit and run, and - under the cajoling of his sole friend Jin-tae (Jin Ku, A Bittersweet Life) - as the purveyor of golf club-fuelled revenge against his assailant. Let go with a warning after Mother's intervention, he plies himself with liquor at a local bar in a quest for some luck with the ladies, and succeeds only in getting intoxicated beyond belief. When a local girl is found murdered the next morning, the police immediately turn to Do-joon as their chief suspect and arrest him for the crime. Convinced of his innocence - even in the face of physical evidence, police certainty, public outrage and an apathetic attorney looking for the easiest way out - Mother is determined to secure his freedom, and with no-one to turn to begins to conduct her own search for the truth.
Along with Park Chan-wook (Thirst, Old Boy) and Kim Ji-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life), Joon-ho represents the new wave of South Korean filmmaking, revitalising the national industry with smart, sharp features filled with substance and style. Given the precedent set by his previous works, Mother was greeted with high expectations upon its 2009 debut at Cannes, and pleasingly it delivers in one of Joon-ho's most accomplished works to date. Comparisons to Hitchcock have been bandied about by every critic and reporter within fifty metres of this movie, however the comparison is certainly well deserved. Tightly constructed and thoroughly suspenseful across the entire two hours running time, with an unexpectedly dark sense of humour and subtle emotional depths, Mother subverts conventions, defies viewer anticipations, and constructs its own complex and clever narrative without a shred of predictability or overused cliché in sight.
Again, like Hitchcock, much of the success of the feature comes down to the lead - a strong female role played by a gifted performer (albeit worlds away from the likes of Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint, Grace Kelly and Kim Novak). Hye-ja is a force to be reckoned with, fleshing out the role of Mother (we are never given any other name for her) to such an extent that you genuinely believe that she exists. Playing with the power of maternal bonds, as an actress she manages to possess the essence of dignified desperation, making even the most despicable of deeds understandable, if not justifiable, within the multi-layered framework of the feature. Each of the supporting cast are perfectly capable, but under Joon-ho's masterful direction it is Hye-ja that commands attention; indeed, the combination of the talented filmmaker and pivotal lead performance ensure that Mother is demanding, witty, untraditional, and simply unable to be missed.
Deserving of the many accolades (including best film, actress and screenplay at the 2010 Asian Film Awards and best performance by an actress at the 2009 Asia Pacific Screen Awards) and critical acclaim it has collected in the two years, Mother is the finest film in exciting director Bong Joon-ho's current repertoire - and when that includes the enigmatic comedy of Barking Dogs Never Bite, the intelligent and disturbing thriller Memories of Murder, and the best creature feature ever committed to celluloid in The Host, it is no mean feat. A film that will keep you thinking - and talking - for days afterwards in reaction to the superlative performance of lead actress Kim Hye-ja alone, Mother is an emotional, labyrinthine, and unconventional addition to the crime genre, and international filmmaking at its best.
NB: Portions of this review originally appeared on DVD Bits.
NB: Portions of this review originally appeared on DVD Bits.