It took Mother to wipe the taste of the abominable Tsubaki Sanjuro out of my mouth—which it did, and then some. Every year for over a decade now there’s been at least one wallopingly good Korean movie. This one ranks as the entry for 2010, at least until I see how I Saw The Devil holds up against it.
Mother is a fine example of how a movie can be both conventionally entertaining and unconventionally intelligent. The bare outlines of the film are a thriller, but the blank spaces between them have not been painted in by the numbers; they’ve been given the tics and quirks of both real life and artistic fancy. It makes sense when you realize the director is Bong Joon-ho, he of The Host and Memories of Murder, two other Korean films that were among the best movies of their respective years regardless of country.
The mother of the title (she goes by no other name) is played by Hye-ja Kim, an actress with a decades-long career in Korea. Mother lives in a small village somewhere in that country, selling herbs and doing a little unlicensed acupuncture on the side for spare cash. The only other thing in her life is her son, the dim-witted Do-joon (Bin Won, of Taegukgi), who spends most of his time bumbling around with his slick hustler buddy Jin-tae. It’s never made clear exactly what’s wrong with Do-joon, but he obviously has parts on order, and where Jin-tae goes he follows unquestioningly. The more we learn about what both men are capable of, the more frightened we become of them. The same goes for Mom, maybe even more so.
The next morning the cops discover the body of a local schoolgirl, draped over a railing in an abandoned building. They find evidence to tie the whole thing to Do-joon, and trick him into signing a confession. Mother is livid, and she sets out—in her own stumbling, single-minded, barely competent way—to prove him innocent. But the movie doesn’t become a story of one brave, simple woman against a corrupt system; it takes on the convolutions and moral ambiguity of a noir thriller. At first she suspects Jin-tae of being the killer, but in a disturbing series of scenes he manages to convince her to help him look for the real culprit. Is he sincere, or just jerking her around to take the scent off his trail? Either way, it becomes clear that Mother is just as easily led as her son, only to different ends.
I am very loathe to speak in detail of what happens after this point, because so much of the pleasure of watching Mother is in allowing our expectations to be defeated. Not just for the sake of jerking us around, the way Mother is led astray: the way the movie turns itself inside out has emotional resonance. Everything happens for a deeply personal reason, just not the reason we expect. And then there’s the movie’s wonderful visuals, like the way the oddball opening shot is connected back into the film near the end, or the dazzling final moments which are also gutwrenching in their implications. The film was shot using Hawk anamorphic ‘scope lenses, and it looks like a movie, not a glorified TV show.
So much of why Mother works is because of its actors. Hye-ja Kim is in and at the center of most every scene, and accomplishes the difficult trick of making us believe in someone we might not want to stay in the same room with for more than a few minutes. She looks the role—not just because of the lines in her face or the hobble in her steps, but the way she hovers over her son even when he’s shoving her away. At one point halfway through the film there is a revelation about the two of them, one which provokes hysterics from her, and I never felt like I was watching an actor taking direction: Cry. Scream. Pull your hair. She makes us believe in her, and the rest of the movie, from the inside out.
Like their Japanese counterparts, Korean movies are being snapped up and remade in the West at an alarming rate. It’s easy to see how Mother could be reworked for an American market, but there’s little chance anything that made the movie what it is would survive the transition. This movie isn’t special because of its particularly tangled plot. That’s just a bonus. The real movie is in Hye-ja Kim’s face and eyes. You cannot remake that.
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