By Kyu Hyun Kim
marvels in an overwhelming thriller
Small country town, Korea. Do-joon (Won Bin
, returning to the screen after four years of military service) is a pretty-faced young man, treated as a village idiot and perpetually causing minor havoc with his ne'er-do-well friend Jin-tae (Jin Goo
). Do-joon's devoted mother Hye-ja (Kim Hye-ja
) is left to clean up the aftermath.
Then one day everyone is stunned to find Do-joon arrested for the murder of a high school girl Ah-jung (Moon Hee-ra
). The evidence seems incontrovertible, but Hye-ja launches her own awkward investigation into the murder case, hoping to nab the real culprit. However, everyone in the town, including Hye-ja and Doo-jun themselves, seems to harbor some dark secret, threatened to be uncovered by her sleuthing.
While the film's plot and set-up superficially resemble Bong's based-on-real-life police procedural "Memories of Murder
", "Mother - 2009"
is even more emotionally shocking and devilishly manipulative of the viewer's expectations.
Director Bong spares no authority figure in his searing indictment of contemporary Korean society, all the more effective due to the black-comic tone it assumes -- from "Animal Farm"-like depiction of greedy, corrupt lawyers, to the horrific sexual exploitation of Ah-jung, in which even her demented grandmother is actively complicit.
And yet he continuously undermines the viewer's desire to identify villains and heroes. With the possible exception of Ah-jung and the photo studio owner Mi-sun (Jeon Mi-sun
), our responses to the characters oscillate, sometimes very uncomfortably, between sympathy and disgust. Bong captures with amazing fidelity, the sleepy, off-kilter rhythms of a country town but, like David Lynch in his more boldly metaphoric "Blue Velvet", Bong never loses the sight of festering corruption and inhumanity that pass for "normality" in such settings.
Unlike Kim Hyung-gu, responsible for the warm tones and golden-yellow color scheme usually associated with Bong's films so far, the new DP Alex Hong ("Taegukgi
", "The Foul King
") emphasizes cold, sharp blues and austere compositions of natural landscape that at times dwarf the characters.
With the help of DP Hong and the master production designer Ryoo Seong-hee
, "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK
") Bong communicates much information and insight through sheer visual language, without any reliance on spoken dialogue or written exposition. You see Hye-ja noticing a young tree jutting up forlornly as she comes back from the police station, or a one-page-a-day calendar dancing and flipping its sheets in a frantic ascension to the future as it is licked and scorched by flames. Long-time collaborator Lee Byeong-woo
contributes another masterful score, combining Latin dance rhythms with Fellini-like circus music, simultaneously gently comic and darkly mocking.
While "Mother - 2009"
is a great showcase for Bong Joon-ho
's seemingly bottomless directorial talent, it would not have retained half its power if not for Kim Hye-ja
's marvelous performance in the title role.
is absolutely riveting from the frame one, as she seemingly wanders out of a forest and begins to dance, her face a horrid mask pregnant with mysterious knowledge and inarticulate emotion, as she screams and laughs silently with one hand covering her eyes. Kim Hye-ja
's performance in this film is the Korean equivalent of seeing Lucille Ball cast as Queen Eleanor in "Lion in Winter" and she blasts Katherine Hepburn out of water. In a word, it is an amazing experience.
brings both tenderness and an unexpected level of chilling seriousness to his role. Yoon Je-moon
as the sympathetic local cop, newcomer Song Sae-byeok
as his funny-scary, martial-arts-obsessed partner and Jin Goo
as the alternately calculating and cruel petty gangster are all excellent in their supporting roles.
Make no mistake, "Mother - 2009"
is not a feel-good commercial hit of the summer.
It is the kind of movie that leaves you spent, stunned and even devastated. Aside from being an unusually powerful thriller blessed with the maybe-twice-in-a-lifetime great performance from a veteran Korean actress, "Mother"
is also an awesomely ambitious artistic statement that cuts deeply into the true nature of love and devotion.
The absolutely frightening yet unmistakably sad "crazy dance" that ends the film, taken with a violently shaking hand-held camera, is like a primal scream from the depth of human heart, excavated by a filmmaker who dares to dig deeper into the subterranean layers of Korean psyche than almost any other filmmaker at work today. It will haunt you long after the movie is over.