Running Time: 128 mins.
Release Date: May 28th, 2009
Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Writer: Bong Joon-Ho, Park Eun-Kyo (Screenplay),
Starring: Kim Hye-Ja, Won Bin, Jin Goo, Yoon Je-moon, Jeon Mi-Sun, Chun Woo-Hee
Bong Joon-Ho is about to make a return to the screen with his latest title Snowpiercer (2012) ¹ which is great because he is a highly talented director.
I first got to know him when BBC Four screened Memories of Murder (2003), a stunning and troubling (although still blackly comic at points) film about a bungled police investigation into a series of gruesome rapes and murders. The film also had something to say on the changing politics of a Korea shaking off authoritarian governments.
I next saw his impressive monster movie The Host (2006). The film was an unconventional movie for its genre in the sense that its focus was less about monsters and more politicised in that rather Korean way since it was about a family with its protagonists facing unsympathetic authorities and American interference as well as the beast.
Mother followed three years later earning rave reviews and even attaining the cover on Sight & Sound in the UK. Bong Joon-Ho twists a genre again to create a satisfyingly complex film.
We first see the titular mother, Hye-ja (Kim Hye-Ja). She staggers through wind-swept tall grass, the lowering sky is heavy with dark clouds. She looks back at the route she has taken. She seems pensive, resigned to having embraced a certain fate. Then she starts to dance to a salsa tune that springs to life on the soundtrack. This is the beginning of a murder mystery, an unconventional and intriguing opening that signals something about how the story will also be unconventional and intriguing an defy expectations.
Hye-ja is a single mother who lives in a small town. She spends her days in her store where she sells herbal remedies and constantly worries about and dotes on her adult son Do-Jun (Weon Bin), a beautiful man who suffers from slight mental impairments like a faulty memory. He is essentially childlike and people regard him as good-natured but he is easily taken advantage of by people like his friend Jin-Tae (Jin Gu), a rough around the edges type with a capacity for lawlessness when it suits him.
One day, the two guys agree to meet at Bar Manhattan for a night on the town, but Jin-Tae doesn’t show up and so Do-Jun gets drunk and staggers home alone in the dark at the same time and on the same route that a school girl takes just before she is found dead, hanging off a roof, head bashed in. Witnesses from the bar place him at the scene. The police think it is an open and shut case, but his loyal mother Hye-ja thinks otherwise.
How could her son do such a thing?
He has no memory and he has been bullied into confessing to the murder. She starts an investigation into the case and finds that her small town has some dark secrets. As one suspect says to her,
“Threre are only three motives for murder. Money, passion and vengeance.”
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? Try a mother protecting her only child even when faced with overwhelming evidence.
A combination of media frenzy and general small town nosiness has made her and Do-Jun the centre of a circus. It is understandable. There is an air of stifling boredom to the place. Its predominant colour-scheme is one of muddy browns and murky greens, the skyline is made up predominantly of low-level buildings in a faceless urban sprawl surrounded by featureless fields and rocky hills. The natural light is dull and flat. The landscape is deluged with sheets of fine rain or meekly lit by wan sunlight. The gruesome murder is a distraction from life’s mundanity for most but for Hye-ja it is a shock.
Defying shame and scandal, she launches her campaign to prove her son’s innocence and catch the real killer. She hires the best lawyer in town and constantly questions the police. She hands out leaflets protesting her son’s innocence and uses her social links to gather information. What she finds is a lot of gossip which has a dark edge regarding the girl.
The more she does, the more she places herself in the cross-hairs of those bigger and tougher than her, men who flaunt laws.
So we back her in her campaign because we have seen how incompetent and borderline dangerous the authorities can be and how the lawyer bleeds her for money. We back her because she physically looks so weak and is alone and yet she has the resilience to continue on. We back her because she is a mother looking after her helpless son. She is not a traditional hero who acts out but one who survives and scrapes her courage and pennies together to make her moves.
We back her because things look conventionally suspicious in movie terms and she earns our sympathy but things get a lot more complicated and that is the delight of the film.
The plot is simple enough up until a certain point but the audience is blind-sided by what happens in a lot of the second half because our expectations of genre and Joon’s refined approach to metatextual matters leave us wide open. Bong Joon-ho is subtly playing us. He feeds us clichés, stokes our assumptions and confirms our beliefs with editing and camera placement and great casting.
The good guys and bad guys seem obvious enough. The mother and son at the centre are perfectly cast with the docile looking Kim Hye-je and the handsome and youthful Weon Bin immediately earning sympathy. Their performances are convincing of a relationship in which she has always taken extra special care over a son who is not quite all there. They are filmed sympathetically as well what with the dolly shots that track Hye-je through driving rain and the canted angles and POV shots where we see the world from her perspective and shot-reverse shot, where potential suspects glower at her and it looks scary.
As the list of suspects narrows and widens our expectations come unstuck and what seems like a formulaic film takes a turn into surprising territory with different shades of morality. The ending is, quite frankly, surprising since it is not a clean and simple one. There is no easy sense of satisfaction in wrapping things up neatly but in tackling a film full of ambiguities that invite thought on the story.
The narrative is intelligent and the technical skill in front of and behind the camera is well played. Mother uses film conventions to paint a twisting story about a town full of people who are all tarnished in some way and all have motivations andpassions and hide things.
¹ It opened in Korea last year and Japan earlier this month and hopefully the west will see it some time soon, unedited as well.