Directed by: Bong Joon-ho || Produced by: Choi Jae-won, Seo Woo-sik
Screenplay by: Bong Joon-ho, Park Eun-kyo || Starring: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, Jin Goo, Yoon Je-moon
Music by: Lee Byung-woo || Cinematography: Hong Kyung-pyo || Editing by: Moon Sae-kyung || Country: South Korea || Language: Korean
Running Time: 128 minutes
If you’re looking for dark, seedy dramas with a certain East Asian flavor that only South Korea can bring, then Mother is the film for you. Released in 2009, Mother is one of the recent star projects out of the peninsular Asian nation’s blossoming movie industry, lauded for its somber nature and cold, calculating crime story. The film is powered by two star performances from Kim Hye-ja as the titular mom and Won Bin as her son, Do-joon. These polar opposite roles showcase the acting extremes the characters in this movie require, exemplifying the sheer depth of its potent narrative.
Kim plays an unnamed mother who lives with her only son in their small house where she sells medicinal herbs and practices unlicensed acupuncture. They are low on the social pecking order, with Kim’s character practicing a modest profession at best and her son (Won Bin) being both socially awkward and intellectually disabled. Things go from bad to worse as Won continues to get in trouble with the law for a variety of petty crimes, and is later accused of murdering a neighborhood girl. This sparks a determined Kim to strike out on her own to prove her son’s innocence at all costs, and what follows is far from the typical black-and-white personal vendettas so often seen in mystery thrillers. As the movie’s title states, this is a movie about a mother, a mom whose protective parental instincts are as cunning and resilient as any criminal conspiracy.
Mother’s main strengths are its cast, lead by Kim and Won, and its dark mystery that plays out both like a thriller and a melodramatic soap opera. Kim is a machine as a mom who won’t be stopped, pursuing her goals to clear her son’s name with fierce tenacity and relentless determination. She functions as a great protagonist with plenty of character flaws, but over the course of the story she grows more ruthless as she encounters social degeneration, lies, violence, and deception. Won Bin also demonstrates his versatile acting. The fact that he can go from playing a character like this, a dimwitted, awkward teenager to the badass assassin he played in The Man from Nowhere (2010) is impressive. Both actors have good chemistry and play off each other well. Their relationship is a key part of Mother’s morbid charm and is the core around which the screenplay revolves.
From a broader cinematic standpoint, Mother is a masterclass mystery filmmaking, mixing and matching frantic, handheld camerawork during chase-scenes and murder sequences with restrained, almost disturbingly assured static shots on tripod during revelatory moments. Writer-director Bong Joon-ho also contrasts a myriad of telephoto close-ups to subtly imply story clues versus red herrings, particularly with his emphasis on telephoto profile-shots. Bong’s grab-bag of subtle cinematic tricks maintains this sense of unknowing throughout, even after the primary mystery is “solved” and the killer is revealed.
Mother is yet another strong thriller from South Korea’s blossoming motion picture stables. It’s one of the most entertaining “dark” movies I’ve seen in a long time. Despite not reaching the zenith’s of other Korean thrillers like Oldboy (2003), Mother is a highly enjoyable, deep film that isn’t afraid to go for the jugular when the viewer is at their most vulnerable. See it if for nothing else than to witness one of the creepiest mother-son relationships to have ever hit the big screen.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Kim is a matriarchal force to be reckoned with as the titular character, and Won Bin provides plenty of calculated support as her misguided son. Their chemistry is one of the biggest reasons this movie works. Mother’s grim screenplay fits together with a bleak directorial style by Bong Joon-ho to create a narrative of distance, hopelessness, and endless shades of grey.
? The hit-and-run and assault cancel each other out. Naturally.