Saturday, February 12, 2011

Far East Specials: Mother

Mother (Bong Joon-ho)

The more recent Korean films (say, movies released since 2002 up until today) this reviewer watches, the more one common truth becomes increasingly evident: the mountains of praise heaped onto the many popular modern Korean directors. The notion of ‘director’ needs to be stressed here. Although some directors are either the primary writers of the scripts they film or at least participate in some fashion in the development of story, it is the directing, specifically the transposition of the script’s ideas to the screen, that the argument is really taking into account. Bong Joon-ho, who had already earned the respect and admiration of film lovers the world over with such outings as The Host and Memories of Murder, saw his reputation only grow further upon the international release of Mother, a movie with a plot that sounds more like a joke than a serious drama. Then again, if memory serves me correctly, upon reviewing Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil not so long ago we even discussed how Korean filmmakers have a knack for concocting delicious mixtures of horror, drama, violence and comedy of all things, so maybe we should not taken aback at all.

Name calling should occupy little to no space in film reviews, and therefore describing the plot of Joon-ho’s latest venture a ‘joke’ was a stretch, quite arguably inaccurate. Permit the author to retract the comment and give it another go. The general outline of the film’s story feels exactly like someone out a B-level movie. Actress Hye-ja Kim plays the titular character, a black market acupuncture specialist who sets herself on a personal quest to discover the truth behind what she sees as the erroneous imprisonment of her son, Yoon Do-joon (Bin Won), who signed a confession for having killed a local teenage girl. Why would the twenty-something year old man do that? In a nutshell, he is slow in the head. You are forbidden from calling him retarded however, for that will earn you a few decent slaps and punches, but he is not the brightest bulb on the shelf. While her boy rubs his temples in the hopes of remembering what happened on the night of the murder (a technique perfected with the help of mother’s coaching), Hye-ja Kim follows hires some lawyers, talks with contacts at the police station, and follows some clues to the mystery in the hopes of proving her son’s innocence. One last important detail about the mother, without giving too much away, is that she has the motherly protective instincts of a shark, or a lioness, or the ‘mother’ from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

So an especially sensitive middle aged mother, whose only significant revenue is to perform an odd job the likes of acupuncture under the table (which naturally makes her the black sheep of her immediate family, politicians of some sort, who are quick to shun her) decides, after the other venues have failed her, that the only way to save her boy from living years behind bars is to take matters into her own hands. As a concept, it is reminiscent of something out of a comic book, or an over the top pulpy novel. Serious drama? It would not seem so, but after seeing what exactly director Bong Joon-ho does with the material, the results are impressive to say the least. Much like Chan-wook Park and Ji-woon Kim, Joon-ho Bong succeeds at using a script that is serviceable, characterized with some interesting ideas and pleasant surprises, but overall pulpy, and raising the overall quality of the finished product, the movie in question, to dizzying heights. That is where the magic of modern Korean cinema is found, in the ability of its directors to create the fantastic out of b-level material (this argument was not attempted during the I Saw the Devil review, but that movie has a ridiculous plot as well. And yet…great film).  I would be ill placed to choose one of the three who necessarily does it best, but I firmly believe that it is this ability in particular that distinguishes them. They are great directors because they know how to make a great movies from a script that appear suited for average airplane novels.

With Mother, Bong weaves a sad, dark tale about a woman’s unshakable love and devotion to a son who requires special attention. Exceptions notwithstanding, there is little debating the notion that mothers will do anything for the good of their children. Do-joon and his mommy share a bond which stretches beyond what one normally imagines a mother-son relationship to be regular. At night, Do-joon snuggles up next to her and even rests his hand on her aging breasts. It is all rather uncomfortable and eerie, and yet when the trouble starts to brew, no one can truly position themselves to argue that the mother is not compelled to act out of the most important of all factors, love. She loves her son, and therefore will fight tooth and nail to see him walk as a free man. It seems to simple on paper, but the oddball little details and different quirks the Bong devotes to the titular character and her boy are important. When all stacked up on top of one another, the viewer is given two strange characters, but ones that are strangely complete, human even. They form an unorthodox couple, no arguments on that point, but there is a level of human interaction between themselves as well as with the surrounding people, which Is the movie’s way of reminding us that there is some sort of truthfulness at the core, a emotional truth to be precise. This is not simple to detect if one is put off by quirk and weirdness, sometimes feeling as if it exists merely for weirdness’ sake (sometimes this reviewer most definitely has a problem with, hence my long standing distaste/disinterest for most David Lynch films), but it somehow finds a way to resonate through to the viewer. Little moments between mother and Do-joon as they communicate during the former’s visits to prison, their nagging at the dinner table before and after the man’s time behind bars, the mother’s touching scenes with a local policeman she saw grow up, all of this are handled with expert gloves by the director. His camera is beautiful, capturing the right facial expressions at the right moments. He clearly wants to squeeze everything he can with each edit, each shot setup, and by golly it works.

Bong Joon-ho may be the primary reason for the film’s success, but let not this review conclude without mention of actress Hye-ja Kim, who imbues the mother with such a range of recognizable and at times frightening qualities. It is a lovely piece of acting because the films asks such uniqueness out of her. This is not just a mother, but nor is this just a freak. The fears and passions which drive her are the recognizable, even noble, qualities. Her increasingly freakish obsession to clear her son’s name, as well as the flirtation with incest she entertains with him, are what make her scary. When push comes to shove, it is ill advised to stand in mother’s way. Love itself can be expressed in a great number of ways, from sweet and admirable, to the painful and dangerous. She probably does not want to be cruel, but if it is her son’s safety and well being at risk, she will tear you a new one. Or smash your head open and set your house on fire afterwards. Hye-ja Kim’s performance teeters on these two sides, the lovely and the chilling, with unforgettable results.

Mother is a bizarre movie to discuss and review. Director Bong Joon-ho succeeds in telling a story of devotion born out of love, but that leads to questionable behaviour, not to mention that the ‘love’ in question, between parent and child, was expressed in some very, very strange ways at times to begin with. The benefactor of all this is the audience, who are treated to something with recognizable emotional beats, but skirts the obvious and the predictable, preferring to juggle with dark, twisted quirk. I am being absolutely honest when I type that I cannot say for sure if I love Mother. It feels like a brand of cinema which requires much time before it bears all of its fruits. I was gripped all the way through, but I believe that a re-watch at some point in the future may reveal more cleverness that I myself was not clever enough to spot originally. If a book is not to be judged by its cover, then Mother is not to be judged by its plot synopsis. Like the titular character, she packs some surprises.


Steve Kimes said...

It's funny that I think you used two of the same pics I did on my blog post of the film.

Excellent review. Are people really saying it is a joke after seeing it? Certainly Mother deserves a lot of respect. The Host, on the other hand...

edgarchaput said...

@Steve Kimes: People are not saying the film is a joke. That is what I wrote for my review, and even that was written half jokingly. What I meant was how several modern Korean directors, most notably Bong Joon-ho take plots that seem fit for little pulpy novels one reads over two days and never again, and make great movies out of them. Cinematography, acting, editing, these movies are great, but they come from weird, silly script ideas.

This viewpoint does not reflect that of other reviewers, only my own.