By Steven Rosen
Movies, especially suspense movies, have taught us that motherhood isn’t always as nurturing and character-building as it’s cracked up to be. See Hitchcock’s Psycho, which clearly showed how it can be too much of a good thing for some lonely, troubled boys.
Mother, from the gifted South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (The Host), isn’t Psycho, but its mixture of darkly humorous eccentricity and equally dark psychological anguish (plus some flashes of ugly violence) makes it an impressive film. He has a wonderful eye for composition and lighting, and for staging some scenes to make them seem weird and possibly funny, but then letting them flow into something more dangerous and chilling.
Bong also has one of his country’s most well-known veteran actresses, Kim Hye-Ja, as the mother — a role she has played more sweetly many times in her country, especially on television. Here she is as maternal as a wolf holding off predators from its young — spying on, hunting down, pleading with, crying at and deceiving those who can help prove her 27-year-old son is not guilty of the murder with which he's been charged.
Wandering home drunk one night, her son Do-joon (Won Bin) inadvertently follows a schoolgirl through a rundown urban area. He mumbles some sexual advances, she chases him off and the next day her body is found hanging over a building’s rooftop barrier. Police arrest him, despite the lack of physical evidence, after tricking him into a confession.
As the mother, Kim is an unbridled, emotional force of nature, and Bong emphasizes that by having her walk in pouring rain, or swaying and dancing in an open field as if the wind is moving right through her bones. Her black hair is in constant need of brushing and she wears mostly drab clothing that makes her look weary and tired. It’s a phenomenal performance, especially since she takes it into difficult territory, some of it David Lynch-style erotically kinky and some of it Shakespearean in its tragic overtones.
Director Bong, 40, has such a command of the visual language of film that the key plot point — the revelation — hinges on an editing technique (the fast cutaway) rather than anything in the screenplay. Because it doesn’t announce itself when it happens (it fits perfectly into his overall approach of lots of short, sharply delineated scenes), you’ll probably want to watch it twice to see what you missed. In that regard, Mother is like Michael Haneke’s 2005 thriller Cache. But it’s also a bit of a trick, since you can’t see it coming. (Boon wrote Mother with Park Eun-kyo and Park Wun-kyo — the director wanted a vehicle to show off actress Kim’s capabilities.)
There’s also an unpleasant sadistic strain in Mother — both in its language and depiction of violence — toward high-schoolers, especially when dealing with their views on their sexuality. One girl creates a “pervert phone,” for example, and a boy gets his teeth kicked in during a vigilante-style interrogation about that phone that goes on much too long.
There’s something of an immaculate-conception-gone-wrong nature in the mother’s raising of son Do-joon. She is single, living more or less in squalor in a small city and relies on collecting/bundling herbs and amateur acupuncture for her income. It can’t be much. She smothers her son in love and concern; he still sleeps in her small bed with her.
She's also almost telepathically (and maybe physically) close to him, a relationship Bong establishes early in a scene where he cuts from her chopping herbs to Do-joon being hit by a car in the street outside. When he’s hurt, she’s hurt — she loses control of the cutting blade and cuts her finger. Talk about being a self-sacrificing mom!
But something isn't right with the relationship or with Do-joon, who not only looks child-like, with his Beatle-style bowl cut and boyish eyes, but also because he acts like he’s developmentally disabled. He’s also apparently a virgin. Others call him a “retard,” a slur that provokes him to fight.
Further, he harbors a passive-aggressive hostility to his mother, which she seems to bear like a cross. Boon brings that out in a weird scene in which she watches him urinate on a wall. After he leaves, she even tries to clean up.
If she’ll do that, what won’t she do when he’s charged with murder? She knows he’s innocent, but she also doesn’t really care. “Even if you really did it, you should deny it,” she tells him, after police coerce him into confessing. That outburst comes during one of many dramatic, explosive scenes that take place in the jail’s visiting room. Boon shoots these well — his cinematographer, Hong Kyung-pyo, keeps focusing in and out of the little windows in the glass partition to create an otherworldly effect.
Like Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Boon approaches some of the characters with a perverse humor, such as when the lawyer the mother hires bellows to her through a microphone at a karaoke bar. But that offbeat humor subsides as the full dimensions of the nature of the mother-and-son relationship are revealed.
Mother also benefits from a beautifully subtle score by Lee Byeong-woo that features folky, jazzy acoustic guitar. It accentuates the strangeness of the relationships and is used especially well in a late sequence on a bus — a dance scene, strangely enough — that is positively ghostly. It’s a strange final scene for a very strange mother.
From Cincinnati CityBeat; April 21, 2010