Sunday, August 15, 2010

Review - Mother (Madeo)

Mother is a mystery, but it's also a comedy, a thriller, a satire, a drama, and it both opens and closes with a dance sequence. Most directors would balk at handling such a variety of conflicting tones within a single movie, but Bong Joon-ho is not most directors, and this young Korean filmmaker appears to relish the opportunity to confound and upend audience expectations wherever possible. The first surprise Mother offers is simply how intimate and low-key it feels after the outlandish action of Bong's blockbuster monster movie The Host, but just because the filmmaker is operating on a smaller scale here doesn't mean we should consider his new work a minor entry or a backwards step. In fact, Mother is perhaps the director's most ambitious and emotionally complex work to date, and at its core there is a monster every bit as terrifying and relentless as the creature that rampaged through Seoul in The Host; a woman driven to terrible acts by her obsessive love for her son.

The mother in the film is never named, but she is played by Kim Hye-ja, an actress famous in South Korea for playing a number of lovable maternal characters. Here she plays a widow who lives alone with her 27 year-old son Yoon Do-joon (Korean heartthrob Won Bin, cast superbly against type). He's an adult but he has the mind of a child, and the mother is fiercely protective of her son, who is rarely allowed out of her sight and still sleeps in her bed. When a teenage girl is found murdered, all of the evidence points squarely at Do-joon, and as he lacks the wherewithal to recall what happened on the night in question or offer a convincing alibi, it is considered an open and shut case. The only person who believes in his innocence is his mother, but as she begins her own investigation, Bong keeps blurring the lines of right and wrong and shifting our perception of who is truly guilty. Again and again we ask ourselves, does mother really know best?

Following the investigation of an amateur sleuth may place Mother firmly in genre territory, but that's how both The Host and Memories of Murder began, and Bong has a way of transcending the boundaries of a given genre by adding unexpected twists to familiar situations. From the very first shot of Mother, Bong throws us off balance, and he never really gives us an opportunity to find our feet again. The film keeps shifting into something new but Bong remains in complete control of the material throughout. It's hard to avoid comparisons to Hitchcock (not only because of the subject matter, but also because of the Bates-like nature of the central relationship), but Bong truly earns such lofty comparisons as his film is crafted with stunning precision. He has a superb sense of visual composition, and Mother contains so many shots that are strikingly inventive, both in the way Bong frames his lead actress and captures the society around her; a society full of feckless cops, exploitative lawyers and poor underclass who are shunned and forgotten.

He also crafts scenes of extraordinary, knife-edge tension, and one particular sequence here – in which the mother is caught unawares as she investigates a potential suspect's home – is a masterpiece of staging and editing. However, while Bong is willing to plunge into the darkest and most gripping aspects of his story, he is always ready to find humour in the same places. His films are constantly teetering on the edge of farce, but the remarkable thing about this director is how he manages to sustain that balance and hit just the right note every single time. There's always room in his stories for the foibles and eccentricities of ordinary people, and I can't think of another filmmaker who handles drastic tonal shifts with such adroitness and confidence.

Mother keeps us guessing all the way, as does Kim Hye-ja's formidable lead performance. She perfectly expresses the deep love she possesses for her son, but there's a flash of madness in those eyes and Bong frequently holds his camera on her face, inviting us to explore it for a clue to her thoughts and feelings. It's a fearless piece of acting that traverses so many emotions, and
perhaps that emotional core, a new development in Bong's work, is the key element that elevates this picture above his already exceptional oeuvre. It is derived from the deep maternal bond that forms the movie's backbone, and it reaches its full expression in the final 15 minutes when Bong, after a terrific late twist, turns his film into a study of guilt, as the mother finally contemplates the true cost of her actions. Mother has ended in a place that we never could have envisaged at the movie's start, but everything that has happened has felt organic and inexorable, and all that's left for us to do is to sit back and gaze in awe at the breathtaking final shot that Bong closes his film with. It's shots like this that confirm just how good this guy is. Bong Joon-ho is a master filmmaker, and Mother is a masterpiece.

Read my interview with Bong Joon-ho here.