Already one of the heroes of South Korean cinema’s recent creative renaissance, Bong Joon-ho had an international success well beyond arthouse parameters with 2006’s The Host. That delightfully old-fashioned (albeit with up-to-the-moment CGI effects) sci-fi monster movie with a distinct local flavor managed what so many similar Hollywood exercises fail to do: Deliver thrills and spectacle without stinting on character involvement, social commentary, humor or even poignancy.
Needless to say, The Host won Bong a lot of new fans. But some old ones worried that he might follow a familiar trail to many precociously populist foreign filmmakers–lured by big-money U.S. major studio offers, ending up directing Jurassic Park 12 or some other made-by-committee franchise film. Instead, for now at least, he’s wisely sticking to home terrain. His latest Mother, which opens Friday at area theaters, is a non-fantastical tale closer to Bong’s acclaimed earlier features (Memories of Murder, Barking Dogs Never Lie) than *The Host*–though really all four films have a lot in common, with their mixtures of genre elements, wry comedy and depthed, surprising character writing. (He is his own scenarist, by the way.)
The central figure in Mother is, of course, a formidable mom. Widowed long ago, our unnamed protagonist (67-year-old Kim Hye-ja, famous amongst Korean audiences for her maternal roles over the last three decades) has struggled to raise only child Do-joon (Won Bin) by herself, eking out their living from an unlicensed acupuncture practice.
Now this son is a grown-up–in age and size only, alas. Thoroughly dimwitted if occasionally sly (in the manner of a misbehaving child), he’s a sometime vandal, drunk and still-virginal horndog prone to violence whenever anyone makes the mistake of calling him “retard.” He can’t hold a job, and even if he could, grasping the responsibility it entailed would be beyond him. For better or worse, Mommy has always taken care of his needs. They even sleep together (on the same bed mat that is, not incestuously), and neither party thinks anything of Mother examining Junior’s urine for healthy color as he pees against a wall in their poor Seoul neighborhood.
Then one day a local schoolgirl is found murdered, and Do-joon–who’d been seen trailing behind her the night before, inebriated and yelling inappropriate comments–is promptly arrested as the prime suspect. Police consider it and open-and-shut case; a sleazy lawyer that Mom can ill afford to hire proves useless; Do-joon himself remembers almost nothing that might exonerate him. Nonetheless, Kim’s matriarch is absolutely convinced of his innocence–he might be a moron, pest and minor delinquent (usually when egged on by Jin Goo as his bad-influence best friend), but she knows he’s essentially harmless.
Thus she takes it on herself to investigate the crime, doggedly and resourcefully leaving no stone unturned in her quest to free the 27-year-old baby from jail. As in his prior films, Bong squeezes considerable subversive comedy from what would seem a dead-serious situation, and Kim throws herself into the titular role’s sometimes crazy twists of mood and decision with a vanity-free aplomb that grounds Mother emotionally. In a moment typical of both director and performance, her attending the murder victim’s wake (when everyone believes Do-joon is the killer) triggers a wild public catfight. Moments later, walking away with her dignity miraculously still-intact, Mom pauses in an open field to carefully re-apply her lipstick.
While in outline Mother may sound like a stock inspirational tale of parental love triumphant, rest assured that it doesn’t play out at all predictably. Bong stubbornly refuses to take the narrative where one might expect, resulting in a movie that hits a lot of surprising notes and leaves one with plenty of food for thought afterward. No rarefied auteur, this writer-director is an entertainer foremost–but one who sees no reason why an entertainment can’t be smart, offbeat and complexly layered.
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