REVIEW: Cinema Release: Mother

Film: Mother
Release date: 20th August 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 129 mins
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Kim Hey-ja, Won Bin, Ku Jin, Yoon Jae-moon, Jun Mi-sun
Genre: Crime/Drama/Mystery/Thriller
Studio: Optimum
Format: Cinema
Country: South Korea

Having enjoyed box office success with the throwaway if fun monster flick The Host, director Bong Joon-ho returns to tackling the sort of heavy subject matter he excelled on with the likes of Memories Of Murder early in his career.

Yoon Do-joon is an impressionable, mentally-impaired twenty-something, led astray by his friend Jin-tae (which sees him rolling around, fighting in the sand pit of a local golf course), and suffocated and frustrated by his overprotective mother, who wants to feed him at the dinner table and sleeps next to him half-naked at night

After a night out where he creates a scene after Jim-tae doesn’t turn up, an inebriated Yoon Do-joon calls out and follows a school girl to a derelict building. Yoon is apparently scared off by a large rock that is thrown from the shadows, but the next day the girl is found bludgeoned to death, and he is arrested by the police and quickly manipulated to sign a confession.

His mother cannot believe her son is capable of such a heinous crime, and believing the police are taking the easy route and fitting him up, she sets out to find the real killer…

The out of context, quirky tone which permeates throughout is set straight away, as we follow the ‘mother’ of the piece serenely walking through a field’s long grass, before she begins an initially amusing yet soon uneasy slow, rhythmic dance in time with the title music. The next scene sees the mother (played by Kim Hye-ja) cutting herbs, the sound of which is crisp and intense, as the camera cuts between her fingers getting ever closer to the blade and her son outside with his friend by whom she’s distracted, then WHAM!, a car ploughs into her son and she heads out in hysterics. These two key scenes are indicative of the director’s joy in leading the viewer in one direction only to throw a curveball, and to quickly jolt the viewer as long periods of calm and sobriety suddenly turn extreme. You never know quite what to expect next and the director succeeds in creating a feeling of uncertainty, so important to a mystery, and more necessary here when needing to distract from several flimsy plot twists and developments.

The director, as we know from success stories like The Host, has a penchant for humour, and this combined with some wonderfully inventive cinematography and unnecessary surprise additions provides occasional treats - for example, when the boy urinates against the wall outside, the camera pans out to show his mother slowly approaching before closer inspection of her offspring’s uncivilized activity. She then begins to feed him as the camera now hoisted above shows his urine trickling behind. Suddenly the bus we were unaware he was waiting for turns up and he runs on.

Given the film’s sinister subject matter, and the overall sombre mood (darkly lit, with heavy storms for the most part), these moments of humour make more of an impression, but are also cheap tricks for a director seemingly unwilling to truly confront or examine the underlying darkness – suggesting an almost incestuous relationship between the pair who sleep together, later becomes a throwaway line for outsiders, although this would have been very important in explaining the mother’s behaviour. We are shown Yoon as odd at best because he’s played too comically, with never a missed opportunity to laugh at his expense (when his friend kicks a rear view mirror off a Mercedes Benz his efforts at emulating said activity only sees him land on his rear). His time in incarceration (where inmates revel in his reaction to being called a “retard”), away from the mother he was apparently so reliant upon, isn’t shown to be difficult for him, and he’s never in any serious anguish, occasionally rubbing his “temples of doom” when he wants to remember events that enter intermittently, and with many inaccuracies.

Given the role isn’t fully fleshed out, and there’s little drama (even his arrest becomes a jokey aside, with a car accident seeing a dazed police officer cuffing and reading him his rights, whilst a large gathering of civilians gawp through the police car’s window – later a police officer kicks an apple from his mouth), you have little understanding or sympathy for the son’s predicament. Your investment in this key character diminished further because of such a powerhouse performance from Kim Hye-ja, stealing every scene the pair share.

As with other key South Korean successes, such as Thirst and Ms. Vengeance, the film is carried by an outstanding female lead performance. The mother’s facial expressions say everything we need to know at times, and she stirs the audience with the role demanding she run the whole gamut of emotions, gaining the strength and courage to investigate given the police’s lazy ineptitude, yet clearly desperate and tormented by her need to protect her son. Her adaptability in the role is indicative of the film’s approach to storytelling, and even if we aren’t emotionally tied to developments, and there’s a criminal lack of tension (even during a scene where she has to creep past a sleeping suspect) as we reach the final scenes, both her performance and the director’s invention are to be marvelled at.

Cleverly crafted, with an old-timey feel (the Hitchcock-style score certainly lends weight to that feeling) and an outstanding lead performance (which has earned an extra star for this review), Mother is another classy South Korean offering, but the director’s unwillingness to explore the characters’ psychosis and some convenient plot developments prevent it being considered a classic. DH

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