Bong Joon-ho’s Mother is not going to be what you expect from a story about the lengths a mother will go in her search for justice. A film that’s equal parts murder mystery, character study and portrait of self-destructive determination, Bong Joon-ho’s follow up to The Host delves inside the overbearing, protective mentality of Asian mothers while showing all of the reasons that their efforts are sometimes fully justified. Bolstered by two brilliant performances and a story that fulfills emotional expectations while subverting narrative ones, Mother is a powerful, effective thriller that like its main character manages to reassure you with feelings that everything will be alright, and yet suggests that its welcoming, maternal embrace may prove every bit as constricting as the dangers that lie beyond it.
Kim Hye-ja plays Ms. Yoon, a retirement-age, poverty-level mom who toils tirelessly to support herself and her son Do-joon (Won Bin), who in the parlance of a gentler time and place would be described as “touched.” Do-joon, meanwhile, runs with a fast crowd, in particular a crafty hoodlum named Jin-tae (Jin Ku), but mostly so that Jin-tae can blame him when they get into trouble. But when Do-joon gets arrested by local authorities when a schoolgirl turns up dead, Ms. Yoon desperately makes a bid to win her son’s innocence, in the process exposing some harsh truths about the victim, her son, and eventually, herself that may prove far more punishing even than if Do-joon is ultimately found guilty.
At two hours and fifteen minutes, it seems inexplicable how a story that’s basically a murder mystery involving one mentally-challenged suspect and his intrepid mother could require that much screen time to resolve. At the same time, Bong’s visual style lends itself to a fascinating and effective spatial exploration of the world these characters inhabit, whether he’s revealing the literal landscape of the town that Ms. Yoon and Do-joon live in or documenting the hierarchy of abuse, corruption and depravity that seems to infect so many of its inhabitants. Although the story is powerfully intimate, it feels like it exists on a larger scale specifically because of the camerawork, and it’s this juxtaposition between the “bigger picture” and Ms. Yoon’s efforts that give the film its undeniable dramatic scope.
At the center of the film is Ms. Yoon, and Kim Hye-ja does a spectacular job revealing the lengths to which she will go to protect her son. That the film doesn’t flinch away from the more troublesome aspects of her involvement in Do-joon’s life, including initially making her something of a pest even for a kid who definitely needs supervision, only gives her journey more profundity. Meanwhile, the “full-retard” performance of Do-joon by Won Bin is at once sympathetic and infuriating, but somehow always understandable, even when he confronts his mother with harsh memories she no doubt hoped both of them would forget, and then quickly realizes that her reaction embarrasses him.
Going back to my initial metaphor for the movie, what’s ultimately most interesting about Mother is the way it initially seems so foreign and unfamiliar, and then locks into a rhythm and storytelling momentum that is as shocking as it is undeniable. While early scenes are entertaining, it’s not until the film’s final third that everything begins to fall into place, not only reflecting back on previous scenes but building to a climax that affects both Do-joon and his mother, provides us with what seems like a reward for our sympathy and attention, and then pours in bitter to balance out the sweet. There are no easy resolutions in the film, and Bong nevertheless maximizes their impact, both as a confirmation and re-definition of those expectations.
Ultimately, Mother is a first-class thriller because it doesn’t let you know it’s thrilling you; rather, it draws you in with scenes and sequences that evoke the minutes of a mainstream mystery, but doesn’t pay them off until after you’ve fully acquiesced to its singular storytelling decisions and oddball flourishes. As such, Mother is the kind of film that seems weirder and more dangerous than some people will be able to handle, but if it’s the kind of experience you’re already familiar with or find compelling in its sheer curiousness, you may find yourself loving every minute of it.