An overprotective mother trusts her gut and tries to save her son from being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.
To say that there’s a thin line between comedy and tragedy doesn’t quite do justice to the films of Bong Joon-ho. In the lopsided universe conjured by South Korea’s superstar director, slapstick and melodrama coexist in the same loopy continuum.
The signature moment of Bong’s 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 girl’s funeral. The wailing mourner’s sloppy fisticuffs devolve into goofy pratfalls. Do we laugh or do we cry? In Bong Joo-ho films, the two reactions needn’t be mutually exclusive.
Mother, Bong’s 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, it’s a whodunit like no other—veering from social satire to family drama to absurdist comedy and back again. Oddly enough, it’s also the first of this dazzling young director’s 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. Mother’s 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-Joon’s name on her own. There’s more than a little amusement to be had watching a matronly lady burglarizing criminals’ apartments and fumbling with the fundamentals of forensics. It’s 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 isn’t 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 Bong’s casts seem to have Asperger’s) but there’s still a nagging sense of déjà vu here.
It’s a mash-up of Memories of Murder’s bureaucratic incompetence by way of The Host’s central theme, in which oddball family members step up to take charge of unexpected genre roles. Even Do-Joon’s quirky disability feels minor compared to the latter picture’s Song Kang-ho—the first monster-movie hero to endure a lobotomy that has no outward effect on his personality.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on a movie that’s better than most of what’s out there. But it’s hard not to hold extraordinary talents to a higher standard, and it’s a bit too early in his career for Bong Joon-ho to be repeating himself.
Deep underneath this over-stuffed but relentlessly light farce lies fucked-up, near-Bergman-esque turmoil.