After world-wide acclaim for his offbeat cult monster flick "The Host", South Korean director Bong Joon-ho takes a very different -- if similarly unconventional -- tack with his first full-length follow-up feature, "Mother": ostensibly a comedy-thriller, set in the hinterlands of rural South Korea, about an elderly woman who sets out to clear her mentally handicapped son of a trumped-up murder charge; it's not long before Joon-ho's now well-established penchant for unpredictable plot tangents and cross-genre pollination asserts itself, and the film broadens out to become a sort of oblique tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions, further compounding the uncatagorisable nature of Bong Joon-ho's most individualistic style of cinema. In the main, though, this movie belongs to its lead actress Kim Hye-ja, and exists in the first place only because its writer and director wanted to create a role for the veteran 68 year-old that would take her beyond the traditional kinds of parts he was used to seeing her in on Korean daytime television. Actually, there's probably not an actress anywhere in the world who wouldn't kill to play such a fully realised and nuanced character piece as this, let alone one specifically designed to be played by an older woman: such roles are a rarity in the cinema of any country, let alone Korea.
With a running time comfortably in excess of two hours, "Mother" takes plenty of time to establish the gentle but quirky rhythms endemic to its rural backwater setting and its eccentric, out-of-kilter population. But Bong Joon-ho wastes little time in confirming that this will be no exercise in commendably 'worthy but dull' World Cinema: even the deceptively idyllic opening credit sequence leaves the viewer feeling slightly off balance, unsure what exactly they are being presented with and how they should take it: the screen opens on a CinemaScope-length image of a golden cornfield swaying in the breeze against a mountainous backdrop of verdant forest, a lone elderly woman walking amongst the sunlit stems as she approaches the camera. As her full-length body fills the right-hand side of the screen she suddenly begins an exaggerated on-the-spot dance, in time to the lilting title music, complete with jerking arm movements. We're later to be reminded of this peculiar opening sequence right at the very end of the film, when it comes then to make a sort of poetic sense. But it is exactly this kind of slightly surreal whimsy that broadly defines at least the first hour or so of this quietly original film. Even when its darker themes first become evident with the early discovery of the body of a murdered schoolgirl, the film approaches the subject from a perplexingly jaunty angle: she is discovered on the roof of a dilapidated abandoned building, on a hill on the outskirts of the town, painfully bent diagonally across the upper balcony, as though on display to the whole village below. The members of the rather lackadaisical police force of the district can't even remember the last time there was a murder in the area, and seem to approach the ensuing investigation and crime scene reconstructions with a view of how such matters should be conducted derived from watching old episodes of "CSI", rather than any specific training for the task.
Meanwhile, Kim Hye-ja's is the 'mother', who spends her days quietly and unassumingly looking after her grown-up son Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin) in the town they have lived in all their lives -- a rat-run for the rich Mercedes-driving city-folk who regularly drive through it on their way to the vast luxury golf course situated on its outskirts -- where she makes a modest living as a local herbalist and unlicensed acupuncturist. Do-joon has the mental age of a twelve year-old, and is forever getting himself involved in various high jinx, mainly at the behest of his slightly dubious 'best friend' Jin-tae (Jin Goo). His mother dotes on him, though, and attempts to keep a constant eye on the helpless man-boy, almost to the point of being slightly smothering. But Do-joon is prone to sudden bouts of amnesia, a condition which Jin-tae uses to his advantage whenever the pair get themselves into trouble, since he can always blame everything onto his hapless pal.
Their minor criminal exploits soon bring them to the attentions of the local police, and when the schoolgirl Moon Ah-jung's (Na Mun-hee) killer seems particularly hard to get a lead on, Do-joon seems the most likely culprit to home in on (especially since a local bar owner testifies to his having been seen awkwardly attempting to chat up girls in the bar, which he then left at just around the time the victim would have been passing by). The inexpert three-man team in charge of the investigation show no compunction about extracting a forced confession from Do-joon, who can barely even remember anything about the walk home that evening. His mother is determined to prove her son's innocence, despite an unthinking acceptance of the police case by most other people in their small community. After her initial attempt to implicate the person she believed to be guilty comes to nothing, she employs the services of a flash lawyer from the city. But he seems intent on accepting an insanity plea, and eventually, the desperate parent feels compelled to pay for the help of the untrustworthy Jin-tae, as she sets out to clear her son's name and find the real killer herself.
However, her investigations turn up a sleazy underbelly of poverty, madness and underage prostitution seething beneath the placid surface of the town, and soon threatens to churn up memories that undermine even the homespun certainties underpinning her relationship with her embattled son -- memories that even she would've rather had remained undisturbed.
With its outlandish cast of unusual, sometimes quirky or just plain weird characters and situations, "Mother" does at first come across like an excursion into an exquisitely photographed pastoral land (Hong Kyeong-pyo's cinematography is never anything less than utterly gorgeous throughout) that closely neighbours Twin Peaks-era David Lynch country: there's hit-and-run golf-playing company directors; a Karaoke-loving hotshot lawyer; the facially scarred best friend of the murdered girl (who fashions 'pervert phones' for her school friends); and the murdered girl's strange and violent relatives -- chiefly, her alcoholic grandmother for whom she once turned tricks in order to buy her guardian's stash of rice wine. The investigative methods of some of the local police force are also cause for yet more oddity, with one of them kung-fu kicking an apple out of poor Do-joon's mouth at one point during his unorthodox interview. The first hour emphasises offbeat comedy and weird character dynamics, even at the expense of the moon-eyed man-boy at the centre of the title character's efforts to uncover the truth.
But as the film enters it second half, a darker, more troubling tone takes over, and Kim Hye-ja really begins to shine in a fascinatingly complex central role that only continues to dazzle all the more with repeat viewings. Director Bong Joon-ho seems able to effortlessly move between the glib quirkiness that characterises many of his peripheral characters written into the film, to a subtle and ambiguously written core in which the veteran lead actress gets to span the gamut of emotions, but nevertheless gives a contained and commanding performance throughout. Although one might think of the film as a small-scale character piece, the director gives it a grand, sweeping thoroughly cinematic appearance, often framing the characters as tiny dots shot from afar against a picturesque vista of fields or town backdrops. This is one good reason to prefer the Blu-ray edition of the movie, which looks crystal clear and really brings out the detail of a visual style that emphasis subtle textures and meticulous compositional framing.
With its thematic similarity to his debut, "Memories of Murder", "Mother" seems to mark something of a return to the more human concerns of Bong Joon-ho's early cinema and away from the populist spectacle characterised by "The Host". But the director continues to surprise throughout the film, repeatedly taking the story down unexpected narrative routes which seem to pay no regard to the strictures of genre or the demands of logic, but which ultimately imbue it with a profound sense of significance and ambiguity. We could well be seeing the makings of a future masterpiece.
The UK Blu-ray disc from Optimum presents a beautiful transfer and a fine 5.1 HD Korean audio track (a stereo 2.0 track is also included) with clear, removable English subtitles. The disc features over an hour's worth of behind-the-scenes and 'making of' material which is well worth watching -- the cast discussing everything from how they approached their performances to how they view their own relationships with their mothers! It's all presented in 1.33:1, the on-set footage shot on camcorder and shown in colour, while most of the interview footage is presented in black and white.
"Mother" is a beguiling, sometimes disturbing piece of work which achieves all its effects through the expedient use of imaginative writing and beautifully crafted imagery. A classically made piece of pure cinema, it deserves a place in any true cineaste's film collection.