Following the massive success of Korean smash The Host, you’d be forgiven for thinking Bong Joon-Ho might sell out. The Host has gone on to become one of the biggest films in Korean history and a sequel is on the way, but for all his commercial success, Bong Joon-Ho has decided to go the other way. Back in 2003, Bong Joon-Ho introduced himself to the world with an assured detective drama called Memories Of Murder. It’s a stunning little movie that showcases Bong’s immense talent behind the camera.
His latest is a reminder of those times. Not that The Host was a CGI juggernaut, you understand, because Bong has always put character development first. That said, Mother is a smaller picture, reminiscent of his breakthrough entry. It plays out like a human tragedy for the most part, but much like Memories Of Murder before it, Bong is smart enough to wrap dramatic intent in crime thriller packaging, ensuring that commercial cinema fans come along for the ride too.
Kym Hye-ja plays the put upon titular character, a single mother to 27-year-old Do-joon (Won Bin). Though adult in years, Do-joon is very naïve and dependent on his mother. He even shares a bed with her at night. Local residents pick on him for being slow, and confrontations end in violence and bloodshed. It’s made clear that Do-joon doesn’t appreciate being called a retard, and that might come back to haunt him later. Do-joon is a constant source of anxiety for everyone, not least his over protective mother.
He has one friend, though Jin Tae (Jin Goo) is not the kind of person mother would like him to be around. He's foul mouthed and prone to violence, and after an altercation with the driver of an expensive car, events take a turn for the worse. Do-joon and Jin Tae set out for revenge, squaring up to the driver on a golf course. Do-joon’s mother is faced with a hefty fine, one that she can’t afford to pay. Do-joon, on the other hand, is just happy to have some mementos of his day out. Mementos that might well bite him on the ass.
A girl is found dead close-by, and suspicion falls at the feet of Do-joon. A golf ball with his name on it was found at the scene of the crime. He is promptly arrested and having no recollection of the events that transpired, Do-joon confesses to the crime he knows he didn’t commit. The police close the case, Jin Tae goes missing and an inefficient lawyer fails to rectify the situation. So Do-joon’s mother takes it upon herself to solve the murder. Summoning all of her maternal instincts, and trusting no one, she sets out to find the killer and prove her sons innocence.
There are four key factors when discussing the merits of Mother, so lets start with the obvious. Hye-ja Kym’s performance is integral to the film's success, and she nails the role emphatically. Subtle, restrained and deeply compelling, you won’t want to take your eyes off the screen for a second. Won Bin - in his first role since Military service - has a tough nut to crack with the complexities of Do-joon. Getting the balance right with mentally handicapped characters is always a challenge, but like Kym before him, Won is never less than convincing.
Jin Goo gets a lot less screen time than the others, but his execution counteracts perfectly with the work of his peers. Tough, uncompromising and full of bravado, Jin Tae is a ticking time bomb with three things on his mind - me, myself and I. The success of Mother very much depends upon three standout turns, and three standout turns is what the film gets. Colour me happy indeed.
The fourth and final factor is Bong Joon-Ho's direction, and once again he proves himself a master of modern cinema. Never less than calculated, Bong makes every shot count. His style is often subtle but always to the point, and his abilities behind the camera are unquestionable. Bong has shown us before how comfortable he is with regards to human emotion and drama, but by tearing down the walls of genre convention he has opened himself up to a wider audience.
His hallmarks remain the same but he dresses them up in different clothing, and I for one can’t wait to see what happens next. Mother is less commercial than The Host, but that’s not to say its any less entertaining. Memories Of Murder was a sublime critique of Korean police procedure, but with Mother, Bong chooses to address the nature of maternal instinct, resulting in an altogether more human affair. Three stunning performances in front of the camera are of course a blessing, but it’s the continued progression of the man behind the camera that satisfies most.
Fans of The Chaser, Memories Of Murder and Nowhere To Hide will lap this up. With Mother, Bong Joon-Ho has joined a small group of directors yet to put a foot wrong, and if this is anything to go by, I can’t see that success ending anytime soon. AW