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September 2010


cast: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, and Goo Jin

director: Bong Joon-ho

124 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail
[released 20 September]

RATING: 9/10
review by Max Cairnduff


This is one of the best films I've seen this year. Come December I'll be amazed if I'm not still saying that. Bong Joon-ho came to fame in the west with landmark Korean horror film The Host. It was partly watching The Host in fact that got me as interested in Korean films as I am (it wasn't my first Korean film, but it did make me sit up and take notice).

When I sat down to watch Mother (aka: Madeo) I didn't know that it was by the director of The Host. All I knew of it was the basic premise - a devoted mother sets out to clear her mentally handicapped son's name after he's arrested for a brutal murder. Going in, I thought the film was revenge horror, a genre I'm not hugely fond of but that can sometimes be done well. It's not. Having seen it, I'd struggle to say what genre it is. Some films aren't so easily contained.

Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin) is a young man with profound learning difficulties. He has trouble concentrating, understands little and remembers even less. His best (and only) friend is Jin-Tae (Goo Jin), a local petty criminal who is fond of Do-joon but isn't above taking advantage of him. Do-joon's unnamed mother (Kim Hye-ja) sells herbal remedies and works as an unlicenced acupuncturist. They all live in a small provincial town, one in which little happens.

One night, heading home drunk from a bar, Do-joon follows a local high school girl and propositions her. The next day she is found dead, her head smashed in and her body draped over the balcony of a disused building where it can be seen by the whole town. A golf ball with his name written on it is found near the scene and, since Do-joon was known to have been at the golf club a short while before, the police make an easy arrest after confusing him into signing a confession.

Do-joon's mother though knows her son is innocent. She knows how good natured he is, how harmless, and she knows of course how mentally challenged he is (he still sleeps, innocently, in her bed each night as if a little child). She sets out to prove his innocence, and to find the real killer.

And it's there the film gets really interesting. I expected the mother to be a force of nature, a woman capable of anything in her son's defence. In a way all that's true, but none of it as expected.

The police jump to easy answers, but the mother's not much better immediately assuming Jin-Tae must be responsible having always seen him as a bad influence. She attends the dead girl's funeral to show her respects, not realising how angry they'll be when what they see as the murderer's mother shows up. Soon though, as she bumbles around, all manner of local secrets start to come out.

I won't, obviously, mention what those are here. The film though goes into noir territory, with the girl's life not perhaps being as innocent as it first seemed, her relatives perhaps having their own issues, and a mcguffin in the form of a mobile phone that may have pictures on it that people will kill to keep hidden. The plot of Mother is an involved one. Generally, it's easy to follow, but equally there are some apparent plot-holes that on a careful viewing turn out to be nothing of the sort. It's a film that definitely bears re-watching.

The characterisation is superb, with even the smaller characters having a life to them that other films fail to give their leads. Motivation is often ambiguous and nobody is one-dimensional. The investigating police officer isn't a bad guy; he's just following the obvious evidence. Jin-Tae is a crook and more than prepared to take money from Do-joon and his mother, but early on when Do-joon's nearly run over by a passing motorist he's passionate in Do-joon's defence. Do-joon is an innocent, but he's also a lecherous drunk.

Visually, the film is a pleasure to watch. From the opening (and somewhat surreal) shots of the mother dancing on her own in the middle of a deserted field to the scenes of bars and cafes in this all too ordinary town there's a real confidence in the film-making here. Put simply, Bong Joon-ho just plain knows what he's doing. The score is equally well judged.

Towering above it all though is the central performance of the mother herself, of Kim Hye-ja. Won Bin and Goo Jin are both excellent, the supporting cast are all very strong (there's not a bad performance in the film) but Kim Hye-ja is superlative here playing an ordinary and not especially bright late-middle aged woman who has nothing in her life but her son and who will just keep going, desperately, pathetically, until she frees him. That makes it sound maudlin. It isn't. It's brilliant.

Mother is a film rich in ambiguity. It's complex, intelligent, dark yet playful and it's superbly acted. It's frequently surprising and more than once had me near-open mouthed at its Hitchcockian twists. My only potential criticisms would be that for some its detached and mordant tone might prove too distancing from the central characters, even cruel. Personally, I think it's everything I seek out Korean cinema for.

Mother comes with a 'making of' documentary, cast and crew features, the film's trailer and a short piece discussing Kim Hye-ja's performance and approach to the film.

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