Do-joon (Won Bin) is a mentally challenged young man, easily led by his unscrupulous cousin Jin-tae (Jin Gu), but his mother (Kim Hye-ja) loves him unconditionally, nonetheless. When Do-joon is arrested for the murder of a young schoolgirl, the police just want to wrap the case up with the one suspect. Mom, though, believes her son is innocent and will go to any length to free him in “Mother.”
Korean Director Joon-ho Bong revisits the concept of a murder in a small town (2003’s “Memories of Murder”) but, this time, through the eyes of the suspect’s mother instead of a cop’s. Do-joon’s mom is dedicated, almost obsessively, to her son’s safety and well-being. When she learns he is the prime suspect in the brutal murder of Moon Ah-jung (Mun-hee Na), she will stop at nothing, quite literally, to free Do-joon from jail. How far she is willing to go is shocking, yet beautifully rendered.
“Mother,” written by the director, Eun-kyo Park and Wun-kyo Park, is a complex tale of love, crime, passion and circumstance that centers on the terrifically nuanced character, Mother, brilliantly portrayed by actress Kim Hye-ja. Despite a creepy Oedipal complex between her and Do-joon (they share the same bed and she has an obsessive closeness to her son), Kim evokes empathy as she goes to any end to save her precious boy.
Bin Won does a superb job in playing the “retard” who reacts with violence when referred to as such. He is a loose canon who tries to sooth his violent temper by massaging his temples as instructed by his (illegal) acupuncturist mother. The treatment does not always help quell his aggressive nature and he is prone to violent outbursts. Jin Gu, as Mother’s questionable nephew Jin Tae, has a nice arc of character as he goes from being a suspect character and bad influence on Do-joon to becoming Mother’s knight-errant. The rest of the tiny cast, from cops to victim to eye witness, is first rate.
Production techs are solid across the board, especially the stylish lensing by Kyung-pyo Hong and score by first-time film composer Byeong-woo Lee. “Mother” is a fine, complex and clearly told story that has international appeal and an award worthy performance by Kim Hye-ja as the titular character. I give it an A.
A small town Korean herbologist/illegal acupuncturist keeps protective watch over her simple twenty-seven year-old son Do-joon (Bin Won, "Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War"), fearful where his innocence may lead him (like his friendship with the dishonest Jin-tae (Goo Jin)). One night, waiting for Jin-tae to arrive at local watering hole Manhattan, Do-joon has too much too drink. When he's thrown out he spies a schoolgirl and follows her to a dark alley. The next morning, police inspector Je-mun (Yoon Jae-Moon) finds her body on display, hanging over a rooftop balcony. A golf ball with Do-joon's name written on it lies at her feet and Je-mun, who only recently let Do-joon and Jin-tae out of jail for a dustup at the local golf course, declares the case solved. But there is one person who refuses to believe the verdict, who sets out to discover who really murdered 'Rice Cake Girl' Moon Ah-jung (Moon Hee-ra), and that is Do-joon's "Mother."
Cowriter (with Eun-kyo & Wun-kyo Park)/director Joon-ho Bong's ("The Host") latest is a study on maternity wrapped up within a compelling murder mystery which furthers themes from "Memories of Murder" from a more refined point of view. With exceptional care given to the psychological properties of location, art direction and costume and a riveting performance from Hye-ja Kim, "Mother" is the director's most mesmerizing film to date.
From the film's first scene, a trail of blood and water connects those involved in the crime. As his mother slices herbal roots in a guillotine, Do-Joon pats a dog across the street from her shop door when, suddenly, he is hit by a black Mercedes. Mother rushes to him in a panic - he's bleeding! - but Do-joon is swept up and away by Jin-tae, intent on catching the driver. As it dawns on mother that the blood is her own, her son and his bad news buddy find the car (Do-joon has remembered the license plate number correctly, although he tells Jin-tae the car was white, an important perceptual note). Jin-tae smashes its side mirror with a kick. Do-joon attempts the same and foolishly slides off the side of the car. Then they waylay its owner and his golfing buddies in their cart. The ensuing brawl lands them all at the local police station, where Do-joon's damage to the car (Jin-tae deflects guilt easily) is treated more seriously than the hit and run, and mother is made responsible for paying the damage. Very deftly and even humorously, Joon-ho Bong has established most of the character traits which will come into play going forward.
After Ah-Jung's murder, Do-joon is grabbed into police custody by Je-mun and hustled into a black car. Mother runs out into the street only to witness the car being crashed into by a white van (Joon-ho Bong's disdain for his country's policeman continues with the Keystone cop routines of "Memories of Murder"). Later, in a carnival atmosphere, she watches as her son is led through a crime scene recreation, his ascension up to the murder scene recalling Mount Calvary. With his guilt established as fact, mother goes to the murdered girl's family home to pronounce his innocence, but she is pilloried, beaten and driven away. The lawyer she has engaged, Mr. Gong (Mou-young Yu), a man with a Beethoven's 5th ring tone and a predilection for pretty girls and karaoke, avoids her. So mother takes matters into her own hands, beginning by breaking and entering into Jin-tae's riverside shack, where she discovers not only the Mercedes's broken mirror, but a golf club smeared in red, and, where she is caught in the closet when he returns to frolic with Mina (Woo-hee Chun). She is finally able to leave with her evidence when the two fall asleep. When she knocks over a water bottle, it pools like blood until it reaches Jin-tae's pointing finger.
Once Jin-tae has disproved her claim with Je-mun, he blackmails her for the assault on his character, but he also advises her to trust no one, not even himself, and to consider why the body was left displayed in such a public place. While Mrs. Yoon is applying acupuncture needles to Mi-sun (Mi-sun Jun), a turn of phrase makes Mi-sun remember a strange request from the murdered girl in her photography shop. There with a friend with a prominent scar on her cheek (Sung-mi Lim), Ah-jung asked about the possibility of printing cell phone photos, because they had sentimental value. Both women set out to investigate, learning why Ah-jung acquired her nickname and the importance of that cell phone. Meanwhile, back in his cell, Do-joon is slowly recalling details of the night he blacked out, thrilling his mother. But he also remembers something else altogether from back when he was five years old.
This is an extraordinary film in so many ways. If at first we view Hye-ja Kim's constant watchfulness followed by the actress's almost hysterical portrayal of obsessive mother love, there is an underlying fuel to the fire that she has layered in all along. Her dances which open and close the film are moving, the first hypnotically eerie, the closing one of manic release. It's a terrific performance, worthy of Oscar attention at the end of the year (the film was Korea's submission for the 2009 Foreign Language Film Oscar, and while it is astonishing that it was not nominated in that category, its 2010 U.S. theatrical opening would make it eligible for other awards). She's ably supported by Bin Won as the easily led innocent and Goo Jin as the difficult to read Jin-tae, but she is also supported by the filmmaking crew. Her unexceptional costume bleeds into her environment, whether a dark and gaudy nightclub, a field of straw or a giant blue cement wall (where she carefully observes the urine stream of her son in one of the film's many humorous moments).
Joon-ho Bong and his cinematographer Kyung-Pyo Hong ("Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War") create psychological resonance in the way they frame the characters - that crime recreation scene, for example, suggesting the crucifixion of an innocent - or the way Mrs. Yoon passes the junkman in the rain, he passing into the background as she advances into the foreground. Location shots are equally strong, a cemetery built on a hill full of texture and depth, Jin-tae's fishing supply shack suggesting backwater intrigue. Joon-ho Bong elegantly incorporates flashbacks (editing by Sae-kyoung Moon), increasingly making them seem part of the present without confusing his audience.
"Mother" is a masterwork. A
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