Mother (2010)

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 03/19/10 10:00:00

"Psycho-sexual, Hitchocockian murder mystery = must-see."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Joon-ho Bongís ("The Host," "Memories of Murder," "Barking Dogs Never Bite") latest film, "Mother" opens in disturbing, disquieting fashion. A middle-aged woman, whose name we never learn, wanders, perhaps aimlessly, through a wheat field. As the music swells on the soundtrack, she seems to hear it too and begins to dance jerkily, haphazardly, not so much out of joy than a reflexive attempt to find something, anything that will move her of a funk. We never learn exactly when this scene takes place (or if takes place at all), but it puts the character, her joys and sorrows, front and center in what turns out to be both a cautionary tale about overprotective mothers and a murder-mystery that ends as "Mother" begins, with the central character dancing, less out of joy than out of a desperate need to escape.

Co-written by Joon-ho Bong and Eun-kyo Park, Mother follows the titular character (Hye-ja Kim), a South Korean woman who runs a medicinal shop (she also does acupuncture on the side). She actively, obsessively dotes on her son, Yoon Do-joon (Bin Won), a developmentally challenged 27-year old. She smothers Yoon with love or something that, at least superficially, looks like love. She feeds, clothes, and otherwise provides for Yoon. Yoon spends his time with Jin-tae (Ku Jin), a young man around the same age. Jin-tae uses Yoon for a variety of purposes, sometimes as a friend, sometimes as the brunt of his jokes, sometimes as the ready-made excuse for mischief.

Thatís exactly what happens Yoon is (slightly) injured in a hit-and-run by a luxury car. After brushing off his mother, a slight injured Yoon and Jin-tae head for the nearby golf course to track down the driver. After a bumbling attempt at intimidation, Yoon and Jin-Tae end up in the local police station. When, days later, a teenage girl is found dead, Yoon becomes the police departmentís number 1 suspect (he was spotted nearby, drunk). Echoing Memories of Murder, the police intimidate Yoon into confessing. Yoonís mother refuses, as most mothers do, to believe that her son killed the teenage girl. Undaunted by public anger (and, by implication, her) and social pressures to conform (an underlying theme in Korean/Asian films), Yoonís mother set outside to uncover the real killer.

What starts off as a disturbing drama of a middle-aged womanís obsessive relationship with her son soon turns into a murder mystery with Yoonís mother playing amateur detective. The exploration of the woman, her son, and their relationship ultimately gives way to a test case in how far a mother will go to protect her son. The result is just as disquieting (and twisted) as the underlying relationship, a near-perfect (if, unfortunately, overlong) case study in the limits (or lack thereof) of that love and the unintended consequences that follow. Mother works both as an emotionally powerful, wrenching character drama and as a narratively satisfying murder mystery that, like Raymond Chandlerís mysteries, also explores the various levels and sub-levels of rural South Korea.

Credit for "Motherís," of course, goes to Joon-ho Bong. Until the final ten or fifteen minutes, Joon-ho Bong keeps a tight grip on pacing, partly through editing, partly by focusing on Hye-ja Kimís central performance as the unnamed, central character. Kim gives a riveting performance. She embodies the central characterís complexities and contradictions without a single false note. It helps that Kim has an expressive range to match the demands of Bong and Parkís emotion-wringing screenplay. Rather than overplay Yoon, Bin Won plays him as slightly off. Heís slower in making connections, in understanding his predicament, but heís also learned to leave with his disability, even take advantage of others who miscalculate how much or how little he knows and understands. Together, Kim and Won make for two of the most compelling characters to appear on film this year.

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