Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin
Runtime: 128 minutes
Whilst South Korea’s most internationally famous filmmaker in recent years has been Oldboy and Lady Vengeance revenge maestro Chan-wook Park, his contemporary Bong Joon-ho is starting to merit equal attention, as a director whose films also have their own set of recurring themes told with an idiosyncratic visual and dramatic style (and he too gets name-dropped by Quentin Tarantino).
His most successful film has been The Host, which rode the crest of the wave of interest in Asian horror films in the 00s, but his two more distinctive films so far have been Memories of Murder, and now the fairly similar Mother. It’s the story of a schoolgirl’s murder, and the single, ageing mother of the accused who’s determined to convince the town of her son’s innocence. A couple of the assigned detectives have never even had a murder case before, and yet they and many others are quick to indict the boy in the most fanatical of ways.
To say too much more would spoil a lot of the film’s enjoyment; whilst the plot isn’t particularly complex, each scene in some way brings surprises that range from the cruelly comic to the heartfelt, moments always heightened by the stylish, exquisite framing of each shot. The opening credits see the film’s heroine dancing alone to the score’s main theme, often whilst looking into the camera. There’s no real explanation for it, but two other scenes – when the character reaches the field halfway through the film, and when we hear the piece of music again in the final scene – and the accompanying plot changes give it a compelling appropriateness which follows the director’s interest in memory.
The role of the unexpected isn’t just related to Mother’s narrative style; it’s also a very important part of the characters’ relationships. The mental difficulties of Do-joon, the young man taking the blame, cause him to be forgetful, moody, and to behave in ways that don’t conform to what strangers expect. Mother shows Do-joon being bullied, but this isn’t a simple picture of the awfulness of prejudice. Instead, by playing with the conventions of the police thriller, the director shows how our love, selfishness, hysteria, and perversions all contribute in different ways to crime and injustice. His films are surprising and anarchic in such a way that any normalness we expect of one another disappears, but we’re no worse off for it.