Mothers most often take on the role of the comforter, the nurturer, and in the wild, the fierce protector. The titular mother at the center of director Bong Joon-ho's
tremendously well-crafted mystery drama is all these things times an unsettling multitude. She is the sort of woman who, bereft of anything else of value in her life, clings desperately to her offspring well past the point of reasonability, and will go to endless lengths to keep them out of danger, regardless of the cost.
That mother is played by South Korean actress Kim Hye-ja
. Kim is best known in Korea for playing sweet, good natured maternal characters—sort of like East Asia's answer to Florence Henderson
—and that's something she shows scarcely a lick of here. Kim is remarkable as this deeply troubled, entirely misguided mother to Yoon Do-joon ( Won Bin
), a developmentally challenged 20-something man who not only still lives with his mom, but actually sleeps in her bed. To clarify: this isn't so much incestuous as it is vaguely, tragically pathetic.
Do-joon is regarded by most of the folk around the small village they inhabit as a sort of annoying but mostly harmless village idiot who is easily influenced, especially by his troublemaking friend Jin-tae ( Jin Ku
)—just don't call him a retard, as mother has trained him to stand up for himself when he's picked on. In this case, standing up for himself translates to an uncontrollably violent outburst.
That harmless reputation is effectively obliterated when a young schoolgirl is found brutally murdered in a dilapidated old building. Evidence at the scene points to Do-joon, and having spent the night of the murder in a drunken haze, he has no plausible alibi. Detectives quickly secure a confession, even though Do-joon still claims to be innocent.
Suffice it to say, mommy's having none of this. Early in the film Kim seems mostly downtrodden and unassuming. She works in a modest herb shop, and does a bit of unlicensed acupuncture on the side. Primarily though, she just dotes on her precious boy. Once Do-joon is arrested, however, she sets about proving her son's innocence with a reckless abandon that sees her showing up at the girl's funeral to angrily plead her son's case, and lying and stealing her way toward evidence that might point to the real killer, or at least, another plausible suspect.
Therein lies the twisted magic of Mother
. At some point Do-joon's purported innocence becomes far less the concern of the mother, so much as proving someone, anyone
else guilty. As revelations about the true nature of the crime (and the victim) patiently come to light, Kim's dogged determination boils over into something vaguely vengeful. And when the truth is finally revealed, you'll be hard pressed not to be hit by the sheer tragedy of it all.
The ending and the build toward it are plotted methodically. Sometimes that's mistaken for a “slow” movie, but Mother
never drags. Credit where credit's due to co-writer/director Bong, who tackles a Hitchcockian brand of criminal thriller with a sort of ease that seems uncanny. He skillfully finds suspense in the simplest of things. There is a scene where the audience is left with baited breath for what feels like an excruciating amount of time as we watch...a pool of water expand. It's just one example of the expertly built tension found throughout the film.
There's also a healthy dose of melodrama dotted into the plot. Thankfully, it's never overwrought, no matter how crazy things get. The plot twists quite a bit, and as we dive deeper into the machinations of mother and son's relationship, the potential for preposterousness always seems to be hovering about. The revelations are impactful, and the dramatic tension feels well-earned.
Ultimately it's Kim that gives this material its weight. She is astonishingly good in every scene, the polar opposite of a “LOOK AT ALL THIS ACTING I'M DOING” kind of heavy performance. The way her demeanor goes from flinching to furious at the drop of a hat is incredible in its believability. She wears this character's inner guilt in every facial expression, and it's mesmerizing to watch. It's the stuff of Oscar nominations.
Bong Joon-ho also directed 2006's The Host
, which, despite being a movie about a gigantic sewer-dwelling monster, also showed his gift for subtle familial drama. He, alongside directors like Park Chan-Wook
and Kim Ji-woon
, represents a stable of incredibly gifted South Korean filmmakers that seem seconds away from being lured to Hollywood to make movies that may or may not be as good as the material they've created in their native land. A Hollywood remake of The Host
is actually in the works right now, and Mother seems poised to get a similar treatment. Maybe it'll be good, but waiting around for an English language version would mean potentially missing out on one of the best crime dramas you'll see all year.