Film Review: Mother (2009)
(or, Omma Goodness, WHAT a Movie.)
by Ender’s Girl
Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, Jin Goo, Yoon Je-moon, Jeon Mi-seon, Song Sae-byeok
Directed by Bong Joon-ho; Screenplay by Bong Joon-ho and Park Eun-kyo / Barunson & CJ Entertainment, 2009
In a Nutshell:
When a mentally disabled man is implicated in the brutal killing of a high school girl, his widowed mother moves heaven and earth to find the proof that can exonerate her only son.
(SpoilLert: Nothing spelled out, if ya know what I mean…)
How far will you go to prove a loved one’s innocence? How much can you sacrifice in exchange for their freedom?
Dangling the irresistible, two-for-one lure of a family drama encased in a taut whodunit, the film Mother hijacks your interest like a hefty block of granite inexplicably hurled your way from inside a dark alley one moonless night, resembling a monstrous projectile spewed forth by a malice-filled cave. If such a thing happened to you, as it does to one of the characters in the film’s most pivotal scene, would you step closer to the crevice, or scuttle away in dread? You know that whoever threw the rock still waits in the shadows — but it isn’t clear if their purpose is to bait you, or frighten you away, or maim you irreparably — or even kill you. Even then, would you dare risk the unknown? Would you cross over and enter?
To bite the bait is to follow a trail that snakes past grimy backstreets and up narrow, crumbling stairways that open into a deserted rooftop overlooking Seamy Town, Korea. Daybreak is just hours away, and by then this same rooftop will be swarming with police and forensic personnel examining a dead teenage girl’s body, bent awkwardly over the balcony wall and with her skull bashed in. A telling piece of evidence points to the village idiot, a 28-year-old mentally retarded man named Do-joon (Won Bin) who lives with his herbalist/acupuncturist mother Hye-ja (Kim Hye-ja) in their ramshackle home downtown. After eyewitnesses finger Do-joon as having been in the vicinity shortly before the girl’s death, the material evidence — a golf ball on which Do-joon had written his name just the day before — appears to be the incontrovertible proof of his guilt.
Do-joon cannot remember what he was doing there that night, although his memories have a way of returning to him later in staggered, foggy snatches. Could he have seen someone else in the area, someone who may have been the killer? And was there anything that could explain how Do-joon’s golf ball ended up at the crime scene? Without a verifiable alibi or the mental wherewithal to defend himself, Do-joon is taken into police custody following a summary investigation, and forced to sign a confession. Possessing neither wealth nor influence to help her dig deeper into the case and expose the true killer who has so maliciously framed her son, Do-joon’s mother Hye-ja finds herself alone in a desperate battle against a flawed criminal justice system and a society indifferent to the plight of her son.
Taking matters into her own hands, Hye-ja thus begins her Sisyphean climb towards justice, guided only by a mother’s instinct and a few unfounded hunches — but spurred on by her own unflagging commitment to get to the bottom of things. Bit by bit she pieces together the scattered fragments from that fateful night — and in so doing, uncovers a broadening nexus of people who may or may not have some kind of connection to the dead girl: the dour-faced local gangster Jin-tae (Jin Goo), whose dangerously violent nature has earned both Do-joon’s admiration and Hye-ja’s revulsion; the contemptuous hostess of a neighborhood dive — incongruously named Bar Manhattan — where Do-joon was seen leaving shortly before the murder; her rebellious and sexually adventurous teenage daughter Min-a; the photo developing shop proprietress Mi-seon (Joon Mi-seon) who can recall a few key details about the victim, a recent customer; an old junk peddler who lives in a hovel on the outskirts of town, and who may have witnessed something of hair-raising import that night; the dead girl Ah-jung’s demented, impoverished grandmother, the only family she ever knew; and Ah-jung’s own schoolmates, whose revelations about the girl – whether told to Hye-ja in careless ignorance or wrung out by force – paint a most disturbing backstory of promiscuity and self-destructive behavior.
Add to the motley mix the harried lead detective Jae-moon (Yoon Jae-moon) and his investigative team, whose methods swing from the horrifying to the horrifyingly comical; and the conceited and patronizing defense lawyer who drops the Do-joon case like a boiled sweet potato when he realizes there is little to gain from it, both financially and publicity-wise. All these characters become unwitting actors in Hye-ja’s passion play, emerging either as an impediment to the truth, or a vital link that can illuminate the way to Do-joon’s vindication.
But to approach Mother as your usual family drama tearjerker about a mother’s unconditional love for her son, or even as your average mystery thriller, is to rise to the bait that writer-director Bong Joon-ho sets for the viewer at the very beginning. He later turns the story completely on its head, and you’ll find yourself questioning everything — from the facts of the murder case, to Hye-ja’s motives and methodologies as she tenaciously dogs the justice that eludes her son, to Do-joon’s molasses-thick memories as they trickle back, and right down to your own assumptions and conclusions regarding the events that have transpired. You will even question the very sympathy that has been expertly wrung from you since the very beginning.
Filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host) nails all the right notes with Mother’s gripping and highly focused storytelling, in which he combines near-flawless* editing with a lean script trimmed of any emotional superfluity. There’s a wonderful restraint that both director and his cast exercise all throughout, leaving no room for the melo histrionics or other plot contrivances that play to the gallery. You’d half expect a movie tackling such discomfiting material — violent crimes, mental disability, sexual deviance – to try and milk all the self-indulgent sensationalism from the subject matter. But not a single frame of Mother is wasted on schmaltz, not a single shot lingers a beat too long on the emotions that flit across the actors’ faces. Even the atmosphere of the film, with its prickling sense of dread, does not distract from the story but only intensifies the escalating tension in the narrative as Hye-ja moves closer to uncovering the truth.
* I say “near-flawless editing” and not “flawless editing” for a reason. Maybe it’s just me, but I thought there was a significant lapse in the storytelling during one crucial scene. If it bothered you as much as it did me, drop me a line in the comments section and we can discuss it there. (I’ll add the spoiler tags.) I’d like to keep the main body of the review as spoiler-lite as possible.
Another aspect of Mother is the sheer visual power and poetic appeal of the images, all rendered with masterful – but detail-filled – strokes. A testament to Bong Joon-ho’s skill as a storyteller is his ability to know when to let the film’s visuals speak (and whisper, keen and scream) for themselves. The mostly bluish-gray to neutral color palette of the film, coupled with the austere and somewhat forbidding set design – concrete walls, rutted asphalt, rundown tenement buildings – all serve as the perfect backdrop for the bleakness of the story’s events.
Bong Joon-ho employs a number of juxtapositions to create contrast and emphasis for certain elements of the narrative – like the shot of Hye-ja walking back from the precinct under the driving rain while the old junk collector trundles past her to her left, and the supercilious lawyer’s shiny black sedan overtakes her on her right. Certain shots are replicated throughout the movie, with almost identical scene composition but in different contexts and levels of significance, which change as the story unfolds: Hye-ja dancing in a field, then later on a bus; Hye-ja chopping ginseng from inside her shop as she watches Do-joon across the street through her open door; mother and son sharing a meal at home; mother and son sleeping in the same bed. You don’t get the significance of such scenes at first, but they stick in your mind long enough and take on a new meaning as the story unfolds.
Most striking are the recurring vignettes of spilled fluids: a water bottle is inadvertently knocked over by an intruder, and its contents trickle inexorably towards a sleeping person’s fingers while the trespasser slips out of his house. In another scene, a blackish pool of blood oozes from the bludgeoned head of a character, like a sickly iridescent oil slick. And what is perhaps the most evocative image of the whole film: Hye-ja hurries outside with Do-joon’s medicine and finds him urinating before a slate-gray wall near the bus stop. She urges her son to drink from the bowl in her hands while he grimaces at the nasty-looking (and nasty-smelling) brew – the same color as her shabby dress, a dark red gash in the gray expanse of wall. Do-joon slurps while his bladder voids itself. In and out, sip and seep, herbal drink and excreta: an unbroken visual flow of medicine to mouth, of piss to pavement. That’s when the metaphor hits you, when you realize that just like the medicine, all that Hye-ja has ever done, and continues to do for her son, simply… leaks out of Do-joon, like his own urine. All her love and her efforts to give him a better life and a brighter future are only met with utter, heartbreaking futility in the end.
The chemistry between Kim Hye-ja and Won Bin as the film’s protagonists is enough reason to watch Mother. You’ll find that Hye-ja and Do-joon are actually many things to each another, and all these roles converge at the crux of their dynamic: mother and son, woman and man, (quack)doctor and patient, teacher and pupil, intercessor and victim — thus proving that human relationships are indeed far more complex and unquantifiable than we’d like to admit. Hye-ja’s unconditional and all-encompassing love for her son is what binds Do-joon to her like a powerful centripetal force, one that is as life-sustaining as it is ultimately destructive. (“You and I are one,” she plaintively reminds her son in one scene.) For there is a darker side to this love, a side marred by emotional suffocation, suicidal thoughts, intimations of incest and other indefinables that lurk in the shadowy interstices of their dysfunctional relationship.
The big revelation here is Won Bin, whom I have fangirly-liked since his show-stealing turn in the Hallyu Season Drama Autumn Tale, and fangirly-loved since the Jang Jin con/heist bromance flick Guns and Talks and the war epic Taegukgi (in both of which he played younger-brother roles — opposite Shin Hyun-jun and Jang Dong-gun, respectively — with endearing vulnerability). Blessed with that rangy build, impossibly pretty face and take-me-home-to-momma smile, Won Bin gained recognition more as a heartthrob than serious-actor material, but in Mother he takes everything you know about him as a model/actor/movie star and spin-kicks it straight in your face. (The dude’s got a black belt in taekwondo, by the way. Just sayin’.)
The unattractive clothes and unkempt bowl cut are a good start, but the physical deglamorization is just a small part of Won Bin’s transformation into the halfwit Do-joon. It’s the shockingly authentic performance that sucks you into the role, with each nuance and detail of the character ringing true: the hunched shoulders and slack mouth, the droopy lids and vacant expression, the thickness of speech, the half-finished sentences, right down to the fidgety motions and repetitive actions – such as flipping open his mobile phone several times during a crucial moment.
On a personal note, I’ve had the opportunity to interact closely with persons with special needs during my school years and later as an adult, and watching Won Bin as Do-joon made my jaw drop from how well-researched his performance was. He was it. He was the real deal. Even more impressive is how he also captured the slyness of his character that manifested itself in a few brief but focal moments: a sidelong glance, a flash of cunning in his eyes before the curtain of blankness descended anew, a knowing curl of the lip — as though he knew a valuable secret that nobody else was privy to. It’s this added layer to Do-joon that best evinces Won Bin’s versatility, acting intelligence, and full commitment to his craft.
Kim Hye-ja’s performance as Do-joon’s mother can be summed up thus: W-O-W. (I can’t believe she was Joo Ji-hoon’s doting granny-slash-the Queen Mum in the 2006 MBC drama Goong, lol.) Hye-ja is everything a mother should be — and shouldn’t be. But she OWNS the role, she OWNS it — body, mind and (tortured) soul. When in full fight mode, Hye-ja bristles with all the fierce, asphyxiating protectiveness of a parent who will stop at nothing to secure her son’s future. But she also knows how to wheedle and charm her way around people, especially if it’s a means to get closer to the truth.
In a story full of disturbed, deviant characters and dysfunctional relationships, you’ll start to wonder who the unhinged one really is – who dances in heart-rending abandon in an empty meadow or amid a busload of strangers, as if to purge her soul of whatever weighs it down; who laces her young child’s food with insecticide and hopes to end her own life shortly after; and who takes one of her acupuncture needles and pierces her own thigh in order to ease the pain of life, in order to “loosen the knots” in her own heart.
The full extent of Hye-ja’s tenacity, resourcefulness, and above all her desperation — reveals itself in the final act of the film, when everything is illuminated — for her and for the viewer. And it is in this moment of truth that Hye-ja finally confronts all her demons and comes to grips with the karmic consequences of her own doing, knowing that in her quest for justice, she may just have committed the gravest injustice of all.
Artistic & technical merit: A
Entertainment value: A
Photo credits: blog.dailycal.org, coffeecoffeeandmorecoffee.com, filmmaters.com, londonkorealinks.net, thefilmreview.com, tobatheinfilmicwaters.com, vimooz.com, wildgrounds.com, wonbin-thailand.com