Mother is one of the most intriguing and wholly original films released this year. Joon-ho Bong’s Hitchcockian fatalistic Korean thriller will undoubtedly cement his reputation as the new master of voyeurism.
Mother has all the staples of a gritty noir and at first appears to be just another paint-by-numbers whodunit murder mystery. But make no mistake, this is no formulaic run-of-the-mill ‘locate the real killer’ story, but a flawlessly directed film which is the celluloid equivalent of a fist in the guts. This is the guy who brought us Memories Of Murder and the superior (and, dare I say, cerebral) creature feature The Host (English remake soon to follow), so I suggest you leave all your expectations behind you before sitting down to watch this film, because it will floor you.
There isn’t much I can tell you about the storyline without revealing too many details of the plot, but I’ll do my best to try and avoid any spoilers.
Hye-ja Kim is the archetypal mother of the story, a steely-eyed matriarch whose only joy is her mentally handicapped son, Do-joon (Bin Won), a young man who thinks like a child and is easily led astray by the boisterous troublemaker, Jin-tae, attacking OAPs on a golf course, damaging property and staying out all night drinking. But Do-joon also shares his mother’s bed, dances with dogs in the middle of a busy street, and is prone to violent outbursts (which she encourages) if anybody calls him a ‘retard’ or tells him he is ‘stupid.’
So, when the dead body of a teenage girl is discovered on a rooftop, left there in a cold, calculated display of cruelty, suspicion immediately falls on Do-joon. The detectives more or less coerce a confession from the boy, even though he has no memory of the night the girl died. So, if he didn’t do it, who did, and why?
This is where Mother comes in, and Hye-ja Kim’s turn as the protagonist is subtle yet layered, and as she roams a rain soaked and grim town populated by seedy attorneys, psychotic teenagers and junk collecting recluses, those layers are slowly, excruciatingly peeled back and we discover that she is anything but the standard mother, but a relentless and determined heroine who will go to extreme lengths to discover who killed the young woman, something she hopes will exonerate her son.
Attending the victim’s funeral only ends in her leaving beaten and bruised by an angry mob. She confronts sexually violent schoolboys, another incident which made me shudder, and in one of my favourite parts of the entire film, there is even an overt and suitably sordid reference to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, with Mother hiding behind heavy drapes while a young man she suspects of the murder has sex with his girlfriend.
Did I mention the underlying theme of Mother was voyeurism? Whether it’s a mother watching her son play with a stray dog, the public re-enactment of the girl’s murder, the sleazy recordings on the victim’s phone, or watching collective grief spill over into shocking violence, this is perhaps one of the finest explorations of personal surveillance since David Lynch first peeled off the fresh white paint on those picket fences in upper-middle class suburbia.
Subverting the familiar tropes of the crime/mystery genre in ways I could never have foreseen, this is the film of a confident writer/director, who has an unerring knack of exploiting the full extent of his sly wit and cunning storytelling, while simultaneously managing to convey scenes of genuine horror and introducing us to a flawed, funny and somewhat dangerous, but always sympathetic heroine.
Joon-ho Bong is leading the charge in creating some of the most compelling films in the Korean film industry, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Mother is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.