Acrid, labyrinthine, unnerving, and well-assembled with visual panache, jarring sound design, and spasmodic pacing, Mother is a deceptively simple and humorous tale with nasty flashes of violence; a slippery drama that suggests the psychological thrillers of Henri-Georges Clouzot transposed to present-day Asia; and a superb thriller that will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
An unnamed widow and her only son live alone in a small town in South Korea. She sells medicinal herbs and performs acupuncture; he attacks anyone who mocks his intellectual disability. When a high school girl is discovered dead on a rooftop, shocking the residents, the incompetent police use circumstantial evidence after a cursory investigation to arrest the boy and trick him into signing a confession. The mother, anxious to prove her son’s innocence, unravels the details of the murder.
Perched on a knife’s edge between tragedy and comedy, Kim Hye-ja is a wonderment, deglammed and forcefully low-key as the hard-pounding heart of Mother, someone who seems capable of doing anything to protect her son. Yet her meekness hides an astonishing fortitude, and even at her most deranged, she is profoundly, passionately human. The fact that Mother keeps its balance is a tribute to its leading actress, and Kim’s subtle work does much to take the edge off its more hyperbolic twists and turns. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance.
Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Memories of Murder) directs with an amazing clarity, both in his images and in the logic of his storytelling. He continues to stun with his unerring ability to straddle the line between a film’s lighter and darker elements, or strike a perfect balance among three or four different tones in a single scene. With the expert skill of a gravedigger, he dredges up dread from the mousy determination of Kim’s Miss Marple-like detective work.
Bong carefully turns Mother into a classic gumshoe narrative with red herrings, interrogations, and sequences of select suspense. Shot and edited with wonderful precision, full of surprises, and growing more compelling as it unfolds, it’s a sly whodunit that melds shrewd, resourceful camera work and sympathetic characters that are morbidly, fascinatingly off. Its combination of dazzling cinematic craft, psychological insight, and darkly amusing mood make Mother a bold, alluring, and quietly devastating piece of work, one of the year’s moviegoing musts.
Mother is a full-blooded, constantly inventive movie about love, faith, determination, guilt, and honour that is always a little larger than life – richer and more defined – while never losing sight of life as the focused object of its gaze. What appears a twisty riff on uncritical devotion conceals something infinitely more twisted. A seam of absurdity and precisely-pitched black humour adds unpredictability to the story, weaving around genre conventions and playfully satirizing their stereotypes. The way Bong uses his central character to tap into the lonely, damaged nature of the private eye archetype makes Mother stand out among its competitors.
Disquieting, deadpan, darkly funny, deviously wicked, and deftly plotted, Mother applies Hitchcockian suspense with a Hitchcockian sense of fair play. Packing a serious punch and a killer crossover, it’s an oddball sinister murder mystery, an intriguingly sour arthouse treat, and a unique, convoluted journey along the bland surfaces and into the dark recesses of mother love. Spoiler alert: it’s not all hugs and kisses.