Director Bong Joon-ho
MOTHER (Madeo) A-
South Korea (129 mi) 2009 ‘Scope d: Bong Joon-ho
Another extremely intelligent film, a psychological thriller that veers into murder mystery territory, with a shifting storyline that leaves the audience a bit off-kilter by the end, still wondering more about the full extent of the central relationship between mother and son. There’s a killer opening credit sequence that features the title character wandering through a grassy field looking somewhat dazed before stopping, turning to the camera, and performing a free form dance, not really in rhythm to the Spanish guitar music, but lost in her own peculiar world, a scene that repeats itself later with a different perspective. Korean TV star Kim Hye-ja is mercilessly plastered all throughout this film, never seeming to enjoy a single minute of it, as every second is spent watching over her grown son Do-Joon (Won Bin), who due to his mental impairment has the brain function of a young child, including considerable memory loss. Do-Joon continues to live at home with his mother, even sleeping in the same bed where his hand can be seen resting on her breast. But there’s an eye opening jolt when Do-Joon is nearly run over by a luxury Mercedes Benz car that continues on without stopping. His friend, local bad boy Jin Tae (Jin Goo), figures it must be heading to the golf course and they follow to administer local justice, but they bungle their mission, spending the afternoon with the hit and run drivers cooling their heels at the police station.
Even though Jin Tae appears to be his friend, he nonetheless blames Do-Joon for breaking the Mercedes side mirror that he himself broke. This establishes the pattern where Do-Joon is routinely called names by others in town and blamed out of convenience for things he didn’t do. The idea that the disabled are weak and easy to be exploited is a central theme of Bong Joon-ho, occurring previously in Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok) (2003) where the police are quick to blame a village idiot character for a series of murders. The same thing happens here as Do-Joon is quickly arrested and charged with the murder of a young girl in what the police are calling an open and shut case. The audience is shown a few visual cues just around the time of the murder, but nothing substantial. A lawyer is hired, but he is soon depicted in the most reprehensible manner, a man with few, if any, remaining ethics, as he’d just as soon sell out his own clients, concerned more about his own image and the collection of his fee. The police aren’t much better, as they easily coerce Do-Joon through fear of physical violence to confess to a crime he has no knowledge of ever committing. The authorities have no interest in what really happened, despite parading every known CSI contraption out before the public in a blatant effort to fool people into believing they know what they are doing, covering up the real fact that they haven’t a clue.
This leaves Kim Hye-ja to trudge through the rain in search of clues to save her son, actually turning into a police procedural film through her meticulous efforts to follow the evidence. This of course leads to dead ends mixed alongside essential information. Perhaps the most outrageous sequence in the film is when she tries to offer her condolences to the grieving family who nearly start a riot in outrage over her presence. The authorities in town have everyone convinced that her son is the killer, so she is threatened and eventually assaulted by the girl’s family. The mother initially suspects Jin Tae, actually sneaking into his home where she is forced to hide behind a curtain in a perfect example of Hitchcockian suspense, where Lee Byeong-woo’s music matches the frayed nerves. Out of sheer desperation, she is force to hire Jin Tae to try to break down a couple of glue sniffers who have been concealing information about the girl. Do-Joon himself, pressed to recall what happened, has brief flashbacks of clarity, but they’re not always pertaining to the case, as he scares the hell out of his mother when he recalls a horrifying memory of such a hideous nature that it's hard not to recoil in disbelief. If it’s not one setback, it’s another, but the mother relentlessly pursues what she can, stopping at nothing, crawling ever closer to knowing what happened. Hong Gyeong-pyo’s cinematography captures in great detail the small, decrepit quarters of the rural poor where the walls are crumbling, where dark community secrets are held, where the physical reality matches the deteriorating state of mind of the mother’s ever increasing desperation. By the time we reach the finale, some viewers may believe she has solved the puzzle while others may feel she is no closer to ascertaining the truth, as truth remains ambiguous and elusive, leaving the mother rattled and in a state of shock. Bong Joon-ho utilizes near experimental imagery for his final sequence, one that has little basis in reality and instead extends the realms of the imagination to near formless images of fire dancing in the air as if the truth is going down in flames.