Mother (2009, dir. Joon-ho Bong)
Starring Hye-ja Kim, Bin Won, Ku Jin, Yoon-jae Moon
The premise of Joon-Ho Bong’s Mother doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary from any other murder mystery flick: A concerned mother whose mentally disabled son is accused of murder decides she will pursue the case the police refuse to and find her son innocent. In the hands of Joon-Ho Bong, whose 2006 film The Host similarly played with genre expectations, this becomes a taught Hitchcock-style thriller.
Mother (she is never given a formal name in the film) is fiercely protective of her son, Do-joon. Do-joon still sleeps in the bed as Mother and relies on her for his day to day survival. His friend Jin-tae manipulates Do-joon and uses him to escape from trouble, knowing the boy won’t understand what is happening. One night, Do-joon arrives home late and drunk, the next morning the police arrest him in the murder of a local teenage girl. Mother makes it her duty to prove her son’s innocence.
Hye-Ja Kim delivers a magnificent performance as Mother. She is small and timid, yet when circumstances call for it she is a force to be reckoned with. Yet she is never unrealistic. The things Mother does are all things a frail middle-aged woman would be capable of. That fragility and humanity is what makes the character so compelling. The audience knows that if she truly comes up against a murderous, powerful force she is not going to get away. In that way, the film offers wonderful counter-programming to American cinema which commonly seeks to mythologize its protagonists by turning them into people capable of supernatural feats. Even in our most “realistic” contemporary cinema, we are commonly given moments that force to ignore their implausibility.
If you have never seen Korean cinema before, then I would recommend starting with this, or The Host even. Joon-Ho Bong is a director who walks that fine line between commercial and artistic film perfectly. He creates enough tension that it pulls us in, and the payoffs to the tension never feel dishonest. The film is also clever, in the same way Mother would have to be to navigate the dangerous journey she is on. The climax of the film and its mystery will leave you stunned and completely flip your perceptions of the characters in the story. A definite must see!