Wednesday, August 4, 2010

THE EAST IS RED #14: Bong Joon-ho’s Mother

by Lisa Morton

I have a confession to make: I’m not a big fan of mysteries. Somehow I’ve always equated the genre with either the bland elegance of the “cozies” (think Agatha Christie), over-amped thrillers in which the thrills all feel empty, or police procedurals with lantern-jawed investigators who puzzle endlessly over tiny clues (I do have a solid affection, though, for noir). Mysteries usually feel to me like “horror lite” – drained of the intense emotions that give horror its passion and punch.
And then I see something like Bong Joon-ho’s Mother and it all goes out the window.
This latest offering from the director of The Host has far more in common with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (which is arguably more of a horror film than a mystery) than it does with, say, James Patterson. Not only does it play on the theme of a small town with evil lurking just below the surface (as Velvet does), but it even includes one scene that looks like deliberate homage, when our title character hides in a closet and spies a potential murderer engaging in sex. It also features Blue Velvet’s wicked sense of humor (both films have strangely positioned corpses!) and superb craftsmanship.
However, where the two differ is in the directors’ world-views: Lynch really believes in the innocence of his protagonists, while no one is innocent in Bong’s milieu. Mother’s p.o.v. is perfectly expressed in one line of dialogue, when one character tells another: “Don’t trust anyone.”
Bong’s work has always been defined by his engaging approach to characters, and that sly sense of humor. Most Americans know The Host, a giant monster movie that also included a controversial funeral scene, in which the dysfunctional family turned a somber moment into an over-the-top fight (a scene which I found hilarious, while others thought it downright offensive). But not many of us have seen Bong’s earlier efforts, the strange little urban dramedy Barking Dogs Never Bite and the reality-based Memories of Murder. The latter film included a scene that I thought perfectly defined the difference between Bong’s sensibility and nearly any American director’s: While police pick over a field for clues to a murder, they suddenly realize they’ve traipsed all over the footprints left by the killer and obliterated their best evidence. It was a funny, frustrating bit, and felt all too human.

Mother feels closer to Memories of Murder than the big budget The Host. It focuses on Do-joon, a twentysomething man who is mentally handicapped; Do-joon can’t remember things that happened to him a day ago, although sometimes massaging his temples helps. Do-joon’s mother works several jobs in an effort to support them, including a gig as an unlicensed acupuncturist. One night Do-joon makes plans to visit his conniving friend Jin-tae for a drinking session, but when Jin-tae never appears, Do-joon staggers home drunkenly, briefly following a young girl…who turns up murdered the next day, her body draped strangely over the edge of a rooftop. The only clue (a golfball Do-joon had thrown in anger during his walk) points to Do-joon, and he’s arrested for the murder.
Content with neither the lackluster cops nor her grinning, slimy attorney, Mother attempts to take the murder investigation into her own hands. She urges Do-joon to try to remember…but unfortunately what her son ends up remembering – Mother’s attempt to kill both of them when Do-joon was five – backfires badly. Mother first suspects, then uses Jin-tae, and the investigation leads to (among other things) a creepy abandoned amusement park, a girl who creates custom “pervert phones”, a filthy junk collector, a disturbed young man who has escaped from a sanitarium, and two glue-sniffing high school kids who get the crap beaten out of them (in the film’s most gruesome scene of bloody violence).
Mother’s ultimate revelation is shocking, tragic, and completely believable. This isn’t a thriller from the M. Night Shyamalan school, where the twist ending causes the entire film to fall apart. The killer’s reveal makes the film pull together even more; in fact, there’s almost not a single wasted frame in Mother, as even small details add up throughout to the devastating conclusion.

If Mother doesn’t have a Frank Booth (everyone in Mother is potentially a villain), lead actress Kim Hye-ja’s magnificent performance may just be the equal of Dennis Hopper’s. Her Mother is strong, and yet deluded by her son’s handicap; she’s tutored him to react violently to anyone who calls him a “retard”, but she also tells police “he couldn’t hurt a water bug”. Throughout the film, Mother slowly loses her grip on sanity, and Kim makes the slow transition as terrifying as anything in a more traditional horror film. Kim is so utterly convincing as the middle-aged woman who has given her life away to her son that it’s almost hard to believe she’s an actress.
Korean heartthrob Won Bin is terrific as Do-joon; he deftly manages to avoid the clichés of playing a mentally handicapped adult, and makes Do-joon alternately likeable, pathetic, and revolting.

Also worth noting is Lee Byung-woo’s score. The Koreans favor orchestral scores over synthesized, and they seem to especially excel in scores that rely on simple acoustic guitar themes, like Mother’s. Lee’s building up a body of work – including Hansel and Gretel and A Tale of Two Sisters – that has made him my favorite contemporary film composer.
I don’t want to risk either giving anything away, or over-hyping Mother, although that would be virtually impossible. Let’s just say right here that it’s probably the most compelling and finest film I’ve seen in the last two years. Even if – like me – you’re normally apathetic towards mysteries, I almost guarantee you’ll love your Mother.

--Lisa Morton