Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Starring Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, Jin Goo, Yoon Jae-moon. (2010, R, 129 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 26, 2010
Despite having completed only a few feature films, South Korean filmmaker Bong is proving himself to be an international master. Though with Mother, he strays from the popular horror fantasies on view in 2006’s The Host, the filmmaker retains a rare ability to straddle several narrative tones simultaneously, without compromising or diluting any of them. The film is a psychological thriller built around a murder mystery. Yet moments of great suspense are sometimes invested with intrinsic humor, moments of trauma can yield great compassion. Often, these seemingly conflicting tones exist all at once, while the oblique mystery never clearly identifies the correct emotion. In Mother, Bong creates a monster of a different sort than he did in The Host: Here it is a woman whose unconditional love for her son has no bounds. This emotion is a driving force that renders her capable of anything, committing feats of great fortitude and great blindness. Mother (who has no other given name and is played by the popular and venerable Korean actress Kim) lives alone with her 27-year-old son, Do-joon (Won), a simple, perhaps mentally disabled, young man who, though easily confused, may often understand more than he lets on. Their relationship is exquisitely displayed – both the love and frustration that comes from their intimate relationship. When a young girl is found murdered and Do-joon doesn’t have an ironclad alibi, he is accused of the crime and jailed. Mother fights tooth and nail for her son’s release, forced into playing gumshoe when the police department gives up on the case after Do-joon signs a confession. Little, ultimately, is exactly as it seems, even unconditional love. The magnificence of Mother is in its accumulation of moments. Brilliant performances by Kim, who conveys a spectrum of emotions, and Won, whose adept skills keep us guessing as to what the character knows and does not know, help make Mother a compelling experience. However, it is the subtlety and dexterity of Bong that lift his thriller to the ranks of Hitchcockian suspense.