Mother (South Korea, 2009)

March 17, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Mother Poster

Mother is a most atypical murder mystery. This is not only because it features an aging female "detective" who represents a bizarre fusion of Miss Marple and Jane Tennison, but because the surreal style contradicts the normally gritty approach we have come to expect from the genre. The movie opens in an almost comedic fashion (albeit one in which the humor is decidedly macabre) and looks for a short while as if it's going to be a satirical social commentary. From there, however, it gets dark and serious. There are twists aplenty and if some of the deductions arrive too easily as a result of contrived clues and convenient witness testimony, those credulity hurdles are easily vaulted in the name of a good story. Mother delights in confounding viewer expectations. In fact, just when you think it's over, a couple of plot developments remain lurking around the next corner.

The film opens with simpleminded Do-joon (Bin Won) being banged up in a hit-and-run accident. He and his hotheaded friend, Jin-tae (Goo Jin), head off in pursuit of the offending vehicle. Their mission of vengeance leads them to a golf course confrontation then to the police station, where Do-joon's mother (Hye-ja Kim) arrives to bring him home. Soon thereafter, however, it's back in police custody for Do-joon, who is implicated in the murder of a young girl. The evidence against him is circumstantial but compelling. His mother, convinced he is being framed (perhaps by his best friend), begins an investigation to exonerate her son. The deeper she digs, the wider the field of suspects becomes. The dead girl, it seems, was free with her sexual favors and had a habit of secretly photographing her lovers. The cell phone records of those trysts are much in demand, with Do-joon's mother being only one of several individuals seeking them.

As a general rule, mysteries are better suited to novels than motion pictures. This is because their complex plots are usually reduced to simple formulas within the confines of a two-hour limit. It is to the credit of director/co-writer Joon-ho Bong (making his follow-up to the internationally successful monster movie, The Host) that he avoids this trap. Mother has a twisty narrative featuring more than one switchback but it never feels rushed. And, although it's usually the case that "surprises" in thrillers are predictable because of their nature (for example, the killer is often the least likely suspect, etc.), Bong subverts this tendency and achieves a few moments that are genuinely unexpected (one of which has nothing to do with the main plot but with an event that happened many years in the past).

There are concessions to time constraints. On at least two occasions, the Mother stumbles upon clues that are too conveniently placed in her path. This sort of "cheat," however, is hardly new to the mystery genre. From time-to-time, even the most respected practitioners (like Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie) resorted to it. These keep the storyline from being airtight but do little to degrade its overall enjoyability. Mother also does not end predictably. Those afflicted with a watch-watching habit will note that the apparent climax occurs almost a half-hour before the movie is over, indicating there is more to come.

Yet perhaps the most surprising thing of all about Mother is how differently it begins from what it becomes. The first 30 minutes mislead us into anticipating a black comedy about social injustice in South Korea as we follow the misadventures of a simpleminded young man (often referred to as "retarded") whose relationship with his mother is close enough to be considered a little creepy. A deftness of touch is required for a director to switch direction so suddenly in mid-stream and Bong's execution of this 90-degree turn is not jarring. Unique and weirdly compelling in its entirety, Mother concludes in a manner that solves all (or nearly all) outstanding riddles and leaves the characters in satisfying states.

Mother (South Korea, 2009)

Director: Joon-ho Bong
Cast: Hye-ja Kim, Bin Won, Goo Jin
Screenplay: Joon-ho Bong, Wun-kyo Park
Cinematography: Kyung-Pyo Hong
Music: Byeong-woo Lee
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Run Time: 2:09
U.S. Release Date: 2010-03-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: In Korean with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1