September 6, 2010
Mother (2010) ****1/2
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Mother (2010)- Unsettling, suspenseful mystery/thriller that honors the turmoils of motherhood. Great opening & closing scenes. ****1/2 of 5
At the center of this genre bending tragic mystery is an interesting performance by Kim Hye-Ja as the title character. She's determined and expressive, yet at the same time, she's also slightly unhinged. In one sense, we root for her as the mother of a mentally handicapped son dead set on showing that he was not culpable in the murder of a troubled teenage school girl. Yet, despite her nobility, this is one mother that the audience can't help but admire from an emotional distance.
The story is a simple renegade procedural. As more twists unfold, we think we know where the story is going, and yet, its ultimate resolution is quite brave and truly unsettling. At first, we think the killer might be the boy's sinister friend who, prior to the murder, was willing to exploit the boy's handicap in order to escape blame for vandalizing a wealthy man's car. Then we're led to believe the killer might be one of the many men the schoolgirl has photographed in compromising situations on her cell phone. The mother tries desperately at first to work within the system, pleading with a detective in charge of the case and then with a famous attorney to take her son's case seriously. The system fails her son which leads her on a singularly dangerous quest that results in many truly suspenseful sequences.
Motherhood is ideally about unconditional love, and in this particular mother/son relationship, where the mother has pretty much given up her entire life to raise her challenged son, the unconditional love appears at times to be fundamentally deranged and selfish. At the beginning of the film, the boy has made up his mind that he wants to sleep with a girl, though when his friend asks if he's ever slept with a woman, he says that he has slept with his mother. Is this simply a mentally challenged person not understanding the question, or are there darker skeletons in this family's closet? Is the mother saving her son out of motherly love, or has her son taken the place of a physical partner in her life?
These moral ambiguities add an element of unease when the audience is asked to journey with an individual that has some serious issues beyond the turmoil of the extreme circumstances of her son's present situation. When the ambiguities of these characters' virtues come into play, the film hits its high point. The mystery itself, though compelling, is quite convoluted and somewhat familiar. There is a climactic moment involving a drifter which flows organically from the psychoses of the mother, and Joon-ho deserves a great deal of credit for allowing the story to follow its own dark logic all the way to its creepy conclusion.
The opening of this film is one of the best of any film I've seen in the last few years. We see the mother in the middle of a field dancing in an almost trance-line melancholic state. It's uncomfortable to witness because it's so ironic. It's almost exploitative to watch this woman dance in a way that shows her brooding insanity in such a stark manner. The film's final scene brings everything full-circle, and the effect is at least as vexing as everything we've witnessed up to this point.
Mother is a convoluted mystery/thriller, and despite its formulaic plot, the direction and style of Bong Joon-Ho makes it unlike anything I've seen before. It's a delicate balance, especially considering that there are a handful of scenes that are almost supernatural in their identity. I've not yet seen Joon-Ho's international horror hit The Host, though now I'm much more eager to see it. I have seen Joon-Ho's short film entry in 2009's Tokyo! called "Shaking Tokyo." That wonderful film similarly travels a very dark path with whimsy. If this tends to be Bong Joon-Ho's m.o., then I'm certainly on board with whatever he puts out there in the future.