Director: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, Jin Ku
Plot: A mother desperately searches for the killer who framed her son for his horrific murder.
Genre: Crime / Drama / Mystery
Awards: Official Selection Un Certain Regard (Cannes).
Rating: R21 for language, some sexual content, violence and drug use.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
"I did a terrible thing."
Korean cinema is blessed with another outstanding writer-director in Bong Joon-ho. Together with Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, 2003; Thirst, 2009) and Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring, 2003; 3-Iron, 2004), these filmmakers (most notably) have been successful in elevating Korean cinema towards the top tiers of Asian cinema in the noughties.
Bong’s new film, as simply-titled as it is – Mother, is perhaps his most mature work to date, in a career which started out slowly, but which skyrocketed with the international release of the critically-acclaimed monster movie-cum-social commentary, The Host (2006).
Mother is two hours of filmmaking bravura. The film centers on the relationship between a protective and resourceful mother in her late fifties, and her intellectually-impaired son in his early twenties who mixes with bad company and is framed for a ghastly murder he did not commit.
With overwhelming evidence against her son, the mother still refuses to believe that her child is capable of murder. “He couldn't even hurt a water bug”, she says, deciding to take matters into her own hands by doing investigative work in secrecy to expose the real killer.
This mystery-thriller is so cleverly-written by Bong that its unpredictability is startling; its twists and turns lead from one unexpected revelation to another. If you can guess how this film is going to turn out past the hour mark, you are either an uncredited writer of Mother or you are just incredibly smart. But you get my point. The screenplay is as watertight as it gets, and for a film which relies on its mysterious underpinnings to sustain viewers’ interest, it is quite simply a remarkable undertaking.
The performances by the leads are excellent. But the mood setting is even better. The film is suspenseful from the first shot of the title character chopping roots with a sharp hand tool. She looks out of the room and sees her son playing with a dog across the road. Bong alternates the shot of the son with the shot of the mother’s finger inching closer to the blade of the hand tool.
In another scene drenched with tension and inspired by David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), the mother, with no time to evade detection, hides in a closet when a suspect returns home with a schoolgirl to have sex. Bong’s use of liquid becomes the visual motif of the film. In the abovementioned ‘Lynchian’ scene, water is used to elevate the suspense. In other moments, characters step onto blood, glue, and urine.
The violence in Mother is brutal but most of it happens off-screen though its impact can be felt greatly. The film has one of the most captivating opening titles sequences of the year, and ends with an equally impressive long take on a moving object. Along with Park’s strangely-romantic vampire horror Thirst (2009), Mother encapsulates what is so fascinating about Korean arthouse cinema. An absolute must-watch.
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