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Film review: Mother

March 23, 2010 - 10:39 am

I had considered reviewing Mother in last week’s issue of CityBeat, but decided to go with The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers instead. Still, I thought the new one from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, best known for The Host, was exceedingly well made. Jay Drose, who reviews the film here, wasn’t as impressed as I was.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Mother, the South Korean film directed by Bong Joon-ho that opened last weekend at Landmark’s Hillcrest theater, begins and ends in the same soft golden ambience of a rising and setting sun. The sunlight isn’t a motif, but rather indicative of the interiority the central character of this film—Mother (Hye-ja Kim), the blissfully protective, instinctual mother of Do-joon, her one and only offspring.  Do-joon (Bin Won) is a developmentally disabled twenty-seven year old who has trouble with his memory and emotional fits, and who still needs rearing, though perhaps not as much as his mother thinks he does. He’s essentially a manchild, and this instability gets him into deep trouble when it’s coupled getting drunk by himself and walking home alone while looking for company. Those events spin a curious spotlight on Mother, whose given name we’re never given; she is a paragon of maternity—no matter how blindly devoted and dangerous that ideal can be.

What transpires in between the first and final images is a lot coarser, a lot less serene than those scenes that open and close the film, as an everybody-knows-your-name town falls into suspicion and fear. This is jumpstarted by the cruel display of a body, a schoolgirl murdered and hung out like laundry for all to see. Do-joon is quickly accused and arrested for this murder because he’s so easy to blame. His mother protests that Do-joon couldn’t hurt a fly, and we follow her pursuit to find the real murderer in an equally clumsy, mother-knows-best manner.

Her journey, however, is constantly impeded. The attorney attached to the case is incompetent. The investigating team can’t even recall the last murder in town, and they quickly close the case on a literally defenseless Do-joon. Mother shows up at the funeral of the murdered schoolgirl, Moon Ah-jung, and pleads with her relatives that her son could not be at fault for the tragedy. She is slapped, quickly ganged up on and nearly thrown off the deck of procession hall. She has no allies, until Jin-tae (Ku Jin)—the buddy Do-joon was supposed to be drinking with that fateful night—puts together some of the pieces of the puzzle. Unfortunately, from this point on, the film concerns itself too much in the clues and dramatic irony of the sordid night when Moon Ah-jung was killed—replaying who saw what and who is to blame in an unimaginative fact-finding sequence.

Like Mother’s pursuit of freedom for Do-joon, there is a similar relentless stylistic manner in which the director frames his rural townspeople. This is the film’s strongest quality, and the director’s reputation precedes him. His last feature, The Host, was laudable for its creative allegorical narrative back in 2006, and still stands as the most successful South Korean film of all time. Like that film, Mother achieves a similar level of cinematic achievement in the way it navigates through the expressions of his actors and the way they move (and don’t move) through the frame and its landscape.  So even though it’s diluted and loopy while investigating its own murder-mystery-scandal in the third act, Mother has some thrillingly crafted directorial moments, including one early on when Mother breaks into Jin-tae’s pad, rooting for evidence. She is frozen here, ensnared in her determination to exonerate her son, even as Jin-tae arrives. When she hides in the closet, she can’t help but watch her son’s best friend gets busy with his girlfriend. The scene thereafter plays out with such quiet, precise efficiency; the slowest of movements are coated with authentic intensity.

Despite its storytelling flaws, Mother is an important look into the murky and idiosyncratic questions of Korea. There is, unfortunately, an unevenness towards the end of the film, as scenes trip over their own vagueness and devolve in their cinematic quality You will remember Mother for its tense moments and the sharp style in which Boon Joon-ho frames his carefully cultivated conflict because he does so with adept craftsmanship. You will not remember, however, the story of mystery and whodunit, which unfortunately take precedent over the stylistic highpoints established early in the film.

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