Mother (2010)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/02/10 15:40:54
Bong Joon-ho's last film, "The Host", was a great big special effects extravaganza that set the record for ticket sales in South Korea. In many cases, one would expect a director to try and top that in his next outing; instead, Bong stepped back in the direction his previous films and made a more intimate film, one which will remind audiences of his "Memories of Murder", both by its subject (a murder in a small town) and its quality (very good indeed).Before the crime takes place, we meet the accused killer and the amateur detective. Yoon Do-Joon (Won Bin) is good-looking, but mentally handicapped; he can't remember things from one minute to the next. His mother Yoon Hye-ja (Kim Hye-ja) is extremely protective. When schoolgirl Moon Ah-jeong (Moon Hee-ra) is found beaten to death with a golf ball that Do-joon had been seen doodling on earlier near the body, local cop Je-mun (Yoon Je-moon) picks him up, and his partner quickly scares a confession out of the easily confused Do-joon. His mother isn't quite so convinced, and starts investigating on her own, starting with her son's friend Jin-tae (Jin Goo), who knew about the golf balls and was supposed to be with Do-joon on the night in question.
Kim Hye-ja is a veteran actress, though little known in the west, even by fans of Korean film, because most of her work has been in television. I gather that she has played a lot of mothers in that medium, but I'd be impressed if any of them are quite as memorable as this one. It takes just a few wordless moments to get a handle on her character: When we first see her, she's slicing herbs at work, but distractedly, always looking out the window at Do-joon, with affection but also a great deal of worry, and no small amount of weariness; she's had to be much more worried for much longer than most parents. The true brilliance of her performance, though, is not how immediately we recognize and understand the character; it's how, as Hye-ja grows more desperate and frantic and we learn more about her, we seldom have moments where we shout out "aha, this explains that!" Kim's performance is so perfectly formed that everything fits together without individual bits needing explanation, even as she gets more complicated.
And she does, even as the murder mystery deepens. Bong and his co-writer Park Eun-kyo build a story that splits time between Hye-ja's investigation and her relationship with her son without creating connections that feel coincidental. It's an impressive balancing act; character-oriented mysteries are some of the toughest things to write well. They do everything right, though - the solution to the mystery is built from clues hidden in plain sight, and the solving of it tells us interesting things about Hye-ja without it necessarily being an obvious parallel to the case. Both threads converge as the story moves to its conclusion without either diminishing in importance, creating a story that is both about Hye-ja specifically and makes a larger point about alienation and loneliness.
The movie's not just about Hye-ja, of course, although she's clearly the central character. Big praise must also go to Won Bin, as Do-joon is an extremely tricky character. He's slow, but can't be obviously simple from a glance, and "slow" can't be his entire personality. He's unhealthily dependent on Hye-ja, but also feels smothered by her; he can be funny but also angry. He's a character, not just a disability.
The rest are impressive, too. Jin Goo handles the part of Jin-tae with aplomb, playing a character who starts off as a sort of facilitator of comic relief, which morphs into something a bit more sinister. Yoon Je-moon is sympathetic as the small-town cop both a little in over his head but familiar with the Yoons. Moon Hee-ra and Lee Mi-do are also good as the high-school girls involved with the case - Moon as the victim, Lee as a possible lead.It's a small cast, in what's a relatively small-scale story, especially relative to the monster hit that Bong had come off. But dismiss it at your peril; as mechanically meticulous as the construction of a special-effects piece like "The Host" is, so is everything about "Mother", and it's engrossing for it.
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