To say that theres a thin line between comedy and tragedy doesnt quite do justice to the films of Bong Joon-ho. In the lopsided universe conjured by South Koreas superstar director, slapstick and melodrama coexist in the same loopy continuum.

The signature moment of Bongs oeuvre arrives early in his 2006 smash The Host. After an endearingly clumsy mutant sea creature gobbles up gawkers along the Han River, a fight breaks out amongst grief-stricken relatives at a young girls funeral. The wailing mourners sloppy fisticuffs devolve into goofy pratfalls. Do we laugh or do we cry? In Bong Joo-ho films, the two reactions neednt be mutually exclusive.

Mother, Bongs fourth feature, is a slippery little number. Stubbornly refusing to let us get comfortable within any of the ever-shifting tones and red-herring plot strands, its a whodunit like no otherveering from social satire to family drama to absurdist comedy and back again. Oddly enough, its also the first of this dazzling young directors films that feels a bit familiar.

Oafish young Do-Joon (Won Bin) is 27 and presumably mentally impaired. Often seen staggering around his dirt-poor village in a drunken stupor with his thug best friend Jin-Tae (Jin Ku), Do-Joon is doted upon relentlessly by his fiercely protective, alarmingly affectionate mother. Played by Kim Hye-Ja as a primal conflagration of maternal anxiety, she frets every time he leaves the house, fusses over his meals, helps him to the bathroom and even shares her bed at night. Mothers title character should probably be terrifying, and yet Kim brings such deep sorrow and regret to the performance, your heart goes out to her.

A promiscous schoolgirl is murdered, her lifeless body draped across a rooftop for the town to see. A bit of physical evidence places Do-Joon at the scene, which is more than enough proof for the kind of overworked, exhausted detectives that tend to pop up in Bong Joon-ho films. As in his 2003 breakthrough hit Memories of Murder (which pioneered the dead-end anti-climax serial killer thriller a few years before Zodiac), the director takes a dim view of law enforcement officials, again presenting a bunch of tired working stiffs who accidentially destroy nearly as much evidence as they gather.

Her precious son railroaded by an over-taxed justice system, our dear mother has no choice but to become an amateur sleuth to clear Do-Joons name on her own. Theres more than a little amusement to be had watching a matronly lady burglarizing criminals apartments and fumbling with the fundamentals of forensics. Its even more delicious when she enlists the aid of cruel Jin-Tae, who takes the case not out of any devotion to his incarcerated little buddy, but for the opportunity to bust some heads.

Ever restless, Bong isnt content to upend the usual detective trappings, not even with such unlikely sidekicks. Mother heads into murkier waters as repressed memories begin to emerge, and the mystery ends up leading to a junkyard somewhere far darker than expected.

Perhaps no living director makes better use of a blank stare (half of Bongs casts seem to have Aspergers) but theres still a nagging sense of dj vu here.

Its a mash-up of Memories of Murders bureaucratic incompetence by way of The Hosts central theme, in which oddball family members step up to take charge of unexpected genre roles. Even Do-Joons quirky disability feels minor compared to the latter pictures Song Kang-hothe first monster-movie hero to endure a lobotomy that has no outward effect on his personality.

Perhaps Im being too hard on a movie thats better than most of whats out there. But its hard not to hold extraordinary talents to a higher standard, and its a bit too early in his career for Bong Joon-ho to be repeating himself.

Grade: B


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