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In Mother, the title character (Kim Hye-Ja, left) tries to proves the innocence of her son Yoon Do-Joon (Won Bin), who has been charged with murder.

Magnolia Pictures/Magnolia Pictures

3 out of 4 stars

Country
USA
Language
English

Mother

  • Directed by Bong Joon-ho
  • Written by Bong Joon-ho and Park Eun-kyo
  • Starring Kim Hye-ja and Won Bin
  • Classification: 18A

The Host, the last Bong Joon-Ho film to grace these parts, was a genre-busting revelation, a gorgeously shot horror flick that kept darting every which way - we didn't just tremble, we laughed too, and even paused to think. It was like getting a passel of good movies for the price of one - Bong was wonderfully generous with his talents. Now, in Mother, he's similarly giving if not quite as graceful. There's an impressive assortment in this package too: a noir murder mystery, a family melodrama, a social comedy, a political allegory. But the wrapping is less tidy here and, occasionally, the strain shows.

Bearing only a generic name, Mother is the sole provider for her only son, and he takes some providing for. At 27, Do-joon is a "simple minded" soul, a rough innocent who lives in a child's perpetual present, rather like Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. Essentially, his nature is sweet, although he bristles when called a "retard" - a common occurrence in this small Korean town. The two occupy a small shop on a busy street, where, amid the cacophony of cellphones, Mother is a traditionalist practising the old medicine, mixing herbal brews with healing acupuncture.

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One dark and drunken night, staggering home from a local pub, Do-joon (Won Bin) follows a schoolgirl down an alleyway. Immediately, Bong cuts to the next morning, when the girl turns up dead and the cops immediately pounce - arresting the simpleton, manipulating a confession, tossing him in jail. Knowing that her son is incapable of violence, Mother spends the rest of the film desperate to prove his innocence, a mission that takes her and us through the town's social strata, up to the high courts and down to the underworld. Cue the murder mystery.

Cue the comedy too. As in The Host, Bong has great fun lampooning every authority figure in sight: The police are so incompetent they can't drive their cop cars without a fender-bender; the attorneys hide in their plush office by day and, in the evening, repair to fancy restaurants to keep intimate council with eager bargirls.

Between these mocking outbursts, the script returns, Rashomon-like, to the scene of the crime, each time from a slightly different perspective. Then it's back to beleaguered Mother - visiting her son behind bars, despairing at the authorities, hooking up with a neighbourhood thug, inching her way to the mystery's solution. As she does, the movie drags noticeably, the genres struggling for cohesion, but then it picks up again when two things become distressingly clear: No one here, not a single character, is without sin; and the climax is a deeply disturbing surprise, fraught with moral ambiguity.

In turn, that ambiguity colours the narrative's allegorical component. A traditionalist in the mire of modernity, Mother symbolically doubles as Mother Korea, devoted to her land. But is she blindly and uncritically devoted, too quick to forgive and forget sins that should be redressed, to treat any flaws in the national character as simply intrinsic to the country's nature?

All this bubbles up organically from the plot and, thanks to Kim Hye-ja's superb work in the title role, never seems grafted on or didactic. A veteran of the screen, in film and TV serials, Kim is renowned in Korea as a totem of virtuous motherhood. Here, though, she gets to explore the vice that mingles with virtue, and takes full advantage, delivering a compelling portrait of a compassionate woman who's horrified not just by what she learns but also by what she's capable of. All the blood that flows repulses her, not least when it's on her own hands.

How to act in the face of such gained knowledge? The answer comes in the final tableau which, as it did in The Host, seeps out of the frame and straight into your marrow. Yes, beware of that last shot - to mothers no less than their offspring, it's deliriously creepy.

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