Mar 12, 2010


Korean director Joon Ho Bong is a giant filmmaker, as far as I'm concerned. Young, utterly original, intelligent and profound. And tons of fun.
Mother is, like all of his films, a genre bending movie deeply critical of Korean society.
In the talk after the movie at the New York Film Festival, Bong explained that he wrote the film for the astounding actress Hye Ja Kim, who is a Korean national treasure and hence, always plays immaculate, saintly, long suffering mothers. This is a measure of Bong's perversity. For the mother here is a saint, of sorts, the embodiment of ultimate sacrifice, even if the sacrifice is morally doubtful.
For those who loved his film The Host, Mother works in a similar vein, subverting genre and mixing dark hilarity with very human emotions, but it is a much more serious and ambitious film. For one, it doesn't have a giant fish. It has a single mother, who dotes on her retarded teenage son, perhaps a bit too much. A different kind of monster, if you will. There is a hilarious, disturbing scene that reminded me of the mother in Portnoy's Complaint. I also thought of Philip Larkin's "Family. It fucks you up".
You get the picture.
The mother is a herbalist and acupuncturist who works without a license in a small suburban town. Her only son is dim, to say the least, and he gets charged with murdering a schoolgirl. He and his mother go through a harrowing gauntlet of abuse by corrupt and incompetent police. It's easy for them to pin the crime on a retard with a mother who cannot afford justice. She hires a lawyer who is even worse than the police. Bong tells you more about Korean culture in a few bold strokes that you could read in books. For instance, the police are more impressed with the cost of a broken mirror on a Mercedes Benz than with actually punishing the culprits of a hit and run accident in said car. I love details like the mother coming into the lawyer's office to find the secretary flossing at her desk, or a man at a tragic funeral, playing with his cellphone.
The mother is advised to take matters into her hands, becoming a detective herself. Even though I was having a great time during the first half of the movie, before this point in the plot I wondered where exactly it was going. But once she starts investigating, the movie becomes something else. Bong is not afraid to leave the laughs behind (though not completely) and to go into deeper and darker territory. Every single detail accrued up to then becomes a disturbing, complicated revelation, giving the film an almost unbearable richness. I'd have to disclose too many details that would ruin the movie for you, but suffice it to say that the mother is put in a terrible dilemma and she acts like any mother would: with fierce, unbending, protection of her child. This mother is, I venture to say, like all mothers: an avenging angel and a terrible monster. Yet I was with her, in her heroic madness warped by love and devotion, all the way.
I hope this movie gets shown in a theater near you. It is extraordinary.

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