Film Review: Mother (2009)

Mommie Dearest
(or, Omma Goodness, WHAT a Movie.)

by Ender’s Girl

The Cast:
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.


Grade
Artistic & technical merit: A
Entertainment value: A
Overall: A

***
Photo credits: blog.dailycal.org, coffeecoffeeandmorecoffee.com, filmmaters.com, londonkorealinks.net, thefilmreview.com, tobatheinfilmicwaters.com, vimooz.com, wildgrounds.com, wonbin-thailand.com

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15 Comments on “Film Review: Mother (2009)”

  1. Jara Says:

    It’s great that you have reviewed this movie. I saw it about 6 weeks ago when it was the opening film in the Korean Film Festival in Sydney. It blew me away.

    I’m glad you mentioned how amazing Won Bin is in this movie and how utterly he takes your expectations of him and dashes them apart. I also liked some of your observations about the spilling liquids in the movie – nice connection. I’m not sure which editing part you had in mind as Bong Joon-Ho’s momentary lapse. Looking back, I can’t remember something that stood out to me, but I would like to know what part you flagged.

    Cheers.

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      >> Spoilers in this comment thread! Proceed at your own risk!!!<<🙂

      Hi Jara, I was referring to the scene where the rock lands at Do-joon’s feet and he hesitates for a moment, slowly turns away, looks over his left shoulder and turns back and walks up the steps — then cut. The second version (this time from the old junk man’s POV) has Do-joon doing pretty much the same thing, but the time it takes him to walk up the steps (after glancing over his left shoulder) is cut short by almost a full second because the girl suddenly calls out to him, causing Do-joon to turn his head. (And we all know what happened after that. @_@)

      So in Version 1, Do-joon takes a slightly longer time walking up the stairs before the director cuts the scene (being the point at which the girl speaks, which of course we don’t get to see in Version 1). This was an inconsistency in the editing that niggled at the back of my head when the movie ended and I had to replay both versions like, a dozen times, just to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. (I even timed both sequences to be completely sure.)

      It may not seem such a big thing to viewers, but it did bother me that the camera sort of cheated, if you will, by causing the narrative to split into two different versions. Anyway, I consider this a technical lapse more than anything, because had the movie editor/Bong Joon-ho cut the Version 1 scene almost a second earlier, there wouldn’t have been any inconsistency in the narrative because both time frames would’ve jibed.

  2. Jenny Says:

    I have been wanting to see this movie since it was released but unfortunately we don’t get much asian movies here, only during the int.film festival. They had planned on showinf Mother but the movie accidentally came without subs so no go.
    Won Bin(mine)has matured as a actor, he is becoming better and better and I hope he chooses his next project soon.
    Kim Hye-ja I loved her in Goong, I wanted a granny like her❤. I've heard a lot of praise especially for her so I hope I could see this movie soon.
    It was nice that you decided to review this film.

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Yeah, this film is def. a must-see!😉

      Lol you really have the hots for Won Bin, eh? I can’t WAIT to get my grubby li’l fingers on his 2010 action-thriller The Man From Nowhere. In which he is ridiculously hot.

      • Jenny Says:

        Yeah,I saw the trailer at Dramabeans.
        Looking good I must say, I like action movies so I hope to see this one.
        Well won bin is attractive, in Autumn Tale he was so cute(why couldn’t he get the girl?)Don’t you think he looks a bit like Kimutaku?

        The song in the trailer is so interesting, anyone know who the performer is.
        Oh, and there is a new long trailer for
        Byakyakou;

        • Ender's Girl Says:

          “(why couldn’t he get the girl?)” << Lol, my thoughts exactly.😉 (Was never much of a Song Seung-heon fan either.) And Won Bin totally does look like a young KimuTaku. PopSeoul even did a quiz on their resemblance.🙂

          Re the Byakuyakou trailer: the plot thickens! And Kengo Kora PWNS the wavy ’70s hair. Now I’ll have one more reason to watch Bandage, heh heh =P

  3. therainhouse Says:

    Did you watch it online, I’m looking for a link to the movie. Or if it’s available for download, that’s cool too.

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      I actually watched my best friend’s copy and she says she got Mother via Clubbox or eMule (which are her default sites anyway). She also recommends Lets-Look.com (it’s a French-English site for Asian dramas and movies). There’s a DL link to Mother but it’s the 2007 drama, not the 2009 movie. Still, people request stuff there all the time so it’s probably a matter of time before Mother gets uploaded. You can also try AsianDVDClub.org (also for Asian film/drama) but you need to register first (I joined just recently) and when you do so you’re expected to maintain a certain upload:download ratio. Hope the info was useful!🙂

      Addendum: Also found this DL link on MovieAdobo.com but I think this is a pay membership thang.

  4. therainhouse Says:

    I signed up on both AsianDVDClub.org, and Lets-Look, it is so cool that the site is in French-English. Awesome.

    Thanks for telling me, I am trying out Clubbox, figuring out how to work my way around it without any understanding of the Korean language at all..

    Your best friend is awesome. Tell her that. Thank you for the link, E.G.’s best friend!

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Great! Hope you find lots of great stuff on those sites. And thanks, will relay your message to my friend.🙂 (Although she’ll probably read this comment anyway since she checks in on a regular basis. ^^,,)

      Yeah, Clubbox can make your head swim the first few times. Back in 2002/2003 when my friend and I were just starting out in Kdramas, she had to teach herself the process step by step using the tutorial links, but she soon got the hang of it and now navigates the site like a native, lol — as I’m sure you’ll be able to do in no time.😉 (Me, I just mooch off her. I mean, what are friends for, huh? lulz)

      The Clubbox thread on DA oughtta be summat useful, and I think there’s one over at Soompi too.

  5. zooey Says:

    Finally got around to watching the second half of this film (had trouble with the extraction of the rar file so I had to put off watching the rest of it) and I have to say I wasn’t surprised with the ending. I don’t know why, but it’s the kind of thing that one expects out of a filmfest entry. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of this director’s work, “Memories of Murder” put me to sleep a few times but I did enjoy “The Host” despite most people’s complaints about the lousy CGI.

    What sold me on “Mother” were the actors because the mother and son duo really did stellar work. And while I do agree on your observations about the set design and the atmosphere of the film, I think for the first half, it was intentionally slow and dreary, almost as if it were tailor-made to impress film critics. I find that Bong Joon-ho movies, more often than not, bank on a big reveal–either through a surprise plot twist or an emotionally jarring scene–to jolt the viewer awake, unfortunately for me, the payoff isn’t always worth the wait. That being said, I think the movie’s emotional impact comes 100% from Kim Hye-ja’s performance…the story though, not all that original.

    Still, awesome review. Loved your analysis on the spilled fluids. And you’re so right about how real Won Bin played Doo-jon. I liked the simple-minded logic and the explanation as to why the victim was found that way in the crime scene.

    As for the editing lapse and the specific scene you mentioned, I totally agree–it was a complete cheat, a lousy attempt at misdirection. It would’ve made more sense if the first sequence was shot from Do-joon’s point of view because then, we can blame the memory lapses and it would’ve been easier to rationalize how we could have been misled. But the eye-witness account showed us something different, and if that version was supposed to be the truth, then a part of it should have matched the first scene to the very last detail because it was also shot from a third person’s point of view (i.e. us, the audience).

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Hehe, and I thought I was the only one who found parts of Memories of Murder a bit draggy. I know that MoM — with the based-on-a-true-story angle, the social commentary, the big ensemble cast, Song Kang-ho — is supposed to be BJH’s obra maestra, but I found Mother a more fulfilling cinematic experience overall because it was tighter in story and direction. I was thoroughly immersed in The Host for the first half of the movie — not so much ‘coz of the big budgety SFX, but because I LOVED that dysfunctional little family. Then when the key characters started dying midway I was like, “aw nuts” and lost the drive to finish the movie.

      Kim Hye-ja — I know right? All those worlds of emotions held in her eyes. (I re-read parts of my review and realized I didn’t say enough about her performance beyond the superlatives, yikes. Wuz too focused on Won Bin I guess, lol) And it’s interesting how she and her character go by the same name (as do a few other cast mates).

      “I liked the simple-minded logic and the explanation as to why the victim was found that way in the crime scene.” << Yeah, me too! Occam's razor. I'll also agree that the story of Mother isn’t the most original. >> SPOILERS!!!<< Even before the big reveal I was constantly reminded of that episode from David E. Kelley’s The Practice, where Ellenor (Camryn Manheim) defends a slow-witted young man on trial for murder, and the boy keeps saying, “I’m not stupid, Ellenor.” Just before the boy is acquitted Ellenor discovers something, but it’s too late. And the boy’s last words before leaving the courthouse are: “I told you I’m not stupid, Ellenor.” *shivers*

      Nodding vigorously x 290323 to everything in your last paragraph. Gahh, I know right? The best mindscrew movies out there (e.g. The Usual Suspects is my… usual suspect, lol) mess with your head using strong powers of suggestion, which lead you to make your own (often erroneous) assumptions that only get demolished when the story is later revealed in its entirety. So that when you revisit certain parts, you realize it was your own conditioned mind that was seeing the story differently all along — but not the camera. Never the camera. Which is something Bong Joon-ho missed with Mother.😦

  6. PoliceRiot Says:

    I still don’t get why the junk collector’s picture was on the girl’s phone. If it was just a random picture that’s way too Deus Ex Machina for me. I couldn’t enjoy the last part of the film after the twist because I still couldn’t figure it out.

  7. skyyy Says:

    Having /just/ stumbled upon this site and marathoning half the review rn, I don’t know if it bothered anyone as much as it bothered me that he suddenly remembers the whole poison trauma thing at that crucial moment. I mean he was already young when the incident happened, and I can’t see how he deduced that it was poison. Not sure how well my memory serves me, but I recall the two of them just ended up throwing up because she didn’t put enough of the chemical (or w.e poisoning agent it was) in the food. I really /really/ can’t see how his childish (even moreso then) mind could deduce it from just that. My friend was telling me that he was able to piece it together as his mind matured, but I was thinking /but how/. I didn’t think there were that many clues leading up to that conclusion in the first place not to mention that even if his mind matured, his memories of the incident’s still only consists of what transpired at that time (I have no idea if that last part made any sense).

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      It’s possible for long-submerged memories to surface when triggered, isn’t it? As a kid, Do-joon — or at least his subconscious — must have had an inkling that the bouts of vomiting were somehow connected to what his mother had fed him, but his mind wasn’t fast enough to fully process the information. It had to take a strong enough trigger to unlock the memories year later, IMO.


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