Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, Jin Goo, Yoon Je-moon
Written by: Park Eun-kyo, Bong Joon-ho
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content, violence and drug use
Language: Korean, with English subtitles
Running Time: 128
Date: 05/16/2009

Mother (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Maternal Affairs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The young Korean director Bong Joon-ho made a splash with his excellent police procedural Memories of Murder (2003) and then his exemplary monster movie The Host (2006). Now comes Mother, which is something of a combination of the two, only here the monster is (arguably) the power of a mother's love.

Do-jun (Weon Bin) is a young man approximately in his twenties. He appears to be somewhat developmentally disabled. His mother (Kim Hye-ja) makes a living selling herbs and performing acupuncture (without a license). And she always has an eye on her son from the doorway of her shop. Near the film's beginning, Do-jun is clipped by a car, and mother is out the door in a flash, having cut her finger on a chopping board in the process. When blood is smeared all over Do-jun, it takes everyone a few seconds to realize that it's mother's.

In one remarkable shot, Do-jun begins urinating against a wall, and mother feeds him a bowl of broth. He drinks and urinates at the same time; the mother can pour all her food, wisdom, and energy into Do-jun, and it will exit where it pleases. She has no control over it. It's a trickle that runs into the street. (At the end of the scene, she vainly tries to kick and scrape the urine off the sidewalk with her feet.)

Eventually, a girl is brutally murdered, and despite his gentleness and general cluelessness, Do-jun is the most likely suspect. We know he followed her for a little while, and that he was drunk; Bong shows us that much. Do-jun is arrested and unwittingly signs a confession, so the police consider the case solved. But Mother doesn't believe her son could do such a thing and begins a fascinating, twisty investigation of her own.

Bong directs with an amazing clarity, both in his images and in the logic of his storytelling. He seems capable of balancing any number of storylines and characters, as well as a simpler, two-character piece like this. He has a way of moving his camera that suggests impending violence as well as the shock of such violence. In an early sequence, Do-jun and his best friend Jin-tae (Jin Gu) try to find the car that clipped him, and they head to a golf course. They track down the culprits and chase them in their golf cart, jumping them and wrestling them into a sand trap. Bong's camera seems excited, but terrified at the same time. It seems to approach and holds back all at the same time.

This duality could be Bong's stock in trade. In another scene, Jin-tae shows up at the mother's place. His presence is threatening and ghostly, and his purpose is twofold: he's there to threaten her and also to help her. Bong understands that as mother's son is threatened, she turns into a fighting tiger, but this strength is also a weakness. She will buckle under and give everything she has to prevent harm to her son.

Ultimately, the mother's investigation has no clear payoff; we're given at least two possible scenarios. This could be frustrating to mainstream viewers, but is ultimately quite fascinating. The mother's doubt, and the depths to which she has sunk, are key here. It all leads to a terrific conclusion, both placid in its surface and chilling underneath.

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