SHE’LL STOP AT NOTHING.
Bong Joon-ho started thinking about the story for this film early in his career. In 2004, after making the excellent serial killer thriller Memories of Murder, he approached Kim Hye-ja and told her about this project, a story he had written specifically for her. Kim was a well-known actress in South Korea, famous for playing mothers in numerous dramas and commercials. Her characters were usually stereotypical, but Kim realized that this woman would be very different, a major reason why she accepted the role. I guess after a long career of playing a certain type, one is inclined to have a little fun with it.
In southern South Korea, a woman (Kim) lives with her intellectually disabled son Do-joon (Won Bin), selling medicinal herbs. Do-joon is a grown young man, but his mother still takes care of him and worries constantly; for instance, she’s not happy about him hanging around with a local thug, Jin-tae (Goo Jin). After an altercation at a golf club involving the two of them and a few wealthy patrons, Do-joon’s mother finds herself in debt. Soon, everything takes a turn for the worse. Do-joon is having a night out at a bar and on his way home he follows a high-school girl. The next morning she’s found dead on the roof of an abandoned building and Do-joon becomes a suspect in the murder case.
After being tricked into signing a confession, he’s locked up, but his mother refuses to accept his fate and embarks on a quest to find the real killer.
Bong’s most ambitious film to date
There were those who saw a different Bong Joon-ho in this movie. I’m not so sure. Admittedly, it was his most ambitious film to date, but themes from his earlier work resurfaced here. In Memories of Murder the police were depicted as rowdy and incompetent; The Host (2006) had ineffectual government bureaucrats. In Mother, the police are equally inept, deciding early on who the killer must be and then doing everything to make sure the accusation sticks. Both earlier films had some background in actual events; Mother does not, even if Bong has admitted his own mother inescapably became part of the portrait in some ways.
The way the murder mystery is presented in Memories of Murder feels familiar though in Mother; trying to figure out what happened to the victim, the thrill of trying to hunt down the killer, is an aspect that Bong handles very well in both movies. He’s a first-rate director; together with cinematographer Hong Kyong-pyo he makes many moments come alive, for example the brilliantly staged sequence where the mother, ever watchful of her son, sees him being approached by plain-clothes police and bundled into a car; the way she’s filmed as she drops everything to intervene tells us all we need to know about this woman. At the same time, the very first scene, where we meet her in the middle of a field where she begins to dance, adds a touch of uncertainty.
Kim plays her as a person who’s very active and sharp, forming an alliance with Jin-tae as soon as evidence shows that he cannot be the killer, but we don’t know what she’s capable of as she learns new facts about the case. We understand that she’s created an awesome ability to steel herself against psychological threats and just move on, always focused on what’s best for her child.
The writers built a nifty, tragic mystery that’s arresting from start to finish. As in Bong’s other movies, we’re treated to a clever mix of humor, thrills and (especially in this case) emotion.
Mother 2009-South Korea. 128 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Park Tae-joon, Seo Woo-sik. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Screenplay: Park Eun-kyo, Bong Joon-ho. Cinematography: Hong Kyung-pyo. Music: Lee Byung-woo. Cast: Kim Hye-ja (Mother), Won Bin (Yoon Do-joon), Goo Jin (Jin-tae), Yoo Je-moon, Jeon Mi-seon, Song Sae-byeok.
Trivia: Original title: Madeo. Also shown in black-and-white.
Last word: “It surprised me and a lot of the staff members and crew, of course, that [Kim] walked about and had an energy about her that was like a younger girl. It made us realize that this was really a pro actor. She enjoyed the really dark taste of the film, the dark sensibility, and the really grim aspects. [Laughing] Even to the point that she would say ‘should you spray a little more blood in my face?’ That surprised all of us on the set. She was really a great force to work with on the set.” (Bong, Pop Matters)