Sunday, 13 July 2014

Review: Mother

Film buffs like me are nuts about this new wave of quality genre films that has been coming out of South Korea since the late '90s. The most famous examples of this wave include Park Chan-wook's 'Vengeance Trilogy' (Sympathy for Mr. VengeanceOldboy and Lady Vengeance); Bong Joon-ho's off-kilter 2006 monster movie The Host; and Kim Jee-woon's 2008 western The Good, the Bad, the Weird and his 2010 serial killer film I Saw The Devil.

They seem to all share intense and often brutal plots, a mordant sense of humor; and an artistically beautiful cinematic technique that I assume is afforded to them by their small budgets and niche audience.

I didn't know much about the film Mother (2009, trailer) before I saw it, but the fact that it was South Korean and that it was made by The Host director Bong were good enough selling points for me.


When a Mercedes sideswipes mentally handicapped Do-joon (Bin Won) and keeps driving, Do-joon's troublemaker friend Jin-tae (Ku Jin) tracks down the car to a country club. Jin-tae smashes the car's side-mirror, and Do-joon picks golf balls out of the water hazard and writes his name on them. 'I'll give it to a girl', he tells Jin-tae.

Late that night, a drunken Do-joon follows a girl, Ah-jung (Mun Hee-ra): 'Where are you going?...You don't like guys?' She ducks into a disused building to avoid him.

Cut to the next morning. The police find Ah-jung dead from a head wound, as well as one of Do-joon's autographed golf balls near the body. Do-joon's poor memory fails to provide an alibi, and he naively signs a confession simply because the cops think he did it.

While Do-joon endures a prison sentence, his overprotective Mother (Hye-ja Kim) sets out to prove his innocence.

My Take

Mother is a mysterious detective film that stands out for its unique detective. Mother is a highly anxious apothecary who has no experience whatsoever in investigating anything, let alone in living without her son. In fact, Mother's entire existence is centered around caring for Do-joon - as she tells him in a prison visit;  'You and me are one. We've only got each other.'

A recurring theme in Mother is 'the sins of the mother' - the question of whether Do-joon's arrested mental state is related to Mother's overbearing fearfulness. In an early scene, Mother distractedly slices herbs at her apothecary while she watches Do-joon outside. When the Mercedes knocks him down, Mother runs over in a panic. 'Oh no, blood!' she screams hysterically. 'Do-joon, you're bleeding!' Then, a bystander indicates a cut on Mother's finger and exclaims: 'This is your own blood!'

Actress Hye-ja Kim does a great job presenting her character's wide emotional range; from her quiet, mousy submissiveness when at rest to her horrified panics when agitated. Director Bong and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo complement Kim's performance with visually evocative moments - when we see Mother trudging to investigate Jin-tae's home, the enormity of her quest is implied in a vast landscape shot:

Mother is the tiny speck about two-thirds across the image.

In contrast, Mother's panic attacks are framed in tight, overwhelming close-up; and with the unstable sway of a handheld camera.

Mother is faced with many obstacles. The disaffected cops consider Do-joon an open-and-shut case. Further, the distinguished lawyer that Mother secures is also uninterested in her plight. When Mother implores her son to remember anything he can from the night of the murder, he can only recall tangential information about the earlier country club incident.

Typically, the detective in a detective story has a lot of skill, experience, and police resources at his disposal. Here in Mother, Mother has both a desperate goal and hopeless odds. I was riveted, and had no clue what would happen next. How will she save Do-joon? I wondered. Can she save him? Where will her first lead come from? How will her frantically worried psyche figure into the story?

I'm glad to report that the rest of Mother (scripted by Park Eun-kyo and director Bong) delivers on the promise of its strange premise with a plot of moral ambiguity and compelling noir-ish twists.

SPOILER ALERT: Even though I won't give anything away beyond the first half of the film, I'll leave a gap here so that any spoiler-averse readers won't risk reading my next bit by accident.

Do-joon tells Mother that on the night of the murder he intended to meet Jin-tae at a bar, but Jin-tae never showed up. Also, despite Jin-tae being Do-joon's only friend, he hasn't come to prison for a visit. Mother also learns that Jin-tae knew about the incriminating golf balls.

Mother sneaks into Jin-tae's house and removes what appears to be a bloody golf club. She has Jin-tae arrested, but the police find that the red mark is just lipstick. Jin-tae confronts Mother at her home: 'I feel so fucking betrayed. How could you do this to me, bitch?' Then he demands that she pay him a settlement that she can't afford.

Then, just when Mother's 'rotten little scoundrel' opinion of him seems to be completely verified, Jin-tae softens a little: 'Wait. By the way, that dead girl, Moon Ah-jung...there are only three motives for murder: Money, passion, and vengeance...That poor kid living on the hill, what kind of money could she have? So it must be either passion or vengeance.

'So we need to start by investigating the people around her. But those fuckers on the police force found that golf ball and just close the case? Exactly. Do-joon is the obvious scapegoat for them. If it were me, I'd never investigate like that...Do-joon has been totally fucked over. I'm his friend, after all.'

And so; an aging, worrywart mother gains the alliance of a vaguely sociopathic young ne'er-do-well.

The sleepy suburban town that holds Mother's mystery is portrayed through Mother's untrusting eyes as a dingy, malevolent place with secrets hidden in its dark corners. Director Bong also includes memorably uncanny moments in his film - in an early scene, Bong illustrates Mother's and Do-joon's unhealthily intimate relationship in a shot where Mother holds a bowl of medicine to Do-joon's mouth as he urinates against a wall.


Bong Joon-ho's next film after Mother was his 2013 comic-book film (and English language debut) Snowpiercer (trailer). It is currently uncertain as to whether Snowpiercer will be released theatrically here in the UK, but I hope it will be.

Further Reading

For more films that aren't in the English language, you can see my posts about The Skin I Live In, Nine Queens, and Troll Hunter.

Screengrabs: Mother was produced by Barnson and CJ Entertainment. The UK DVD was distributed by Optimum Home Entertainment.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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