Reviews

Film Review: ‘Mother’

★★★★☆

Revered director Bong Joon-ho is one of a number of South Korean directors that have (rightly) garnered recognition for his cinematic work in the West. His latest film Mother (2009), is a wonderful achievement which deserves just as much praise as his monster hit The Host (2006), and once again utilizes scenes of both graphic violence and ingeniously implanted comedy, yet in an altogether more subtle, sombre style and tone. Hye-ja Kim plays ‘Mother’ (as she’s referred to throughout), a thoroughly doting single parent who goes on a mission to prove her son, Do-joon’s innocence, after he is accused of murdering a teenage girl.

Whilst desperately trying to clear his name she is confronted with hostility, threats and ostracism, whilst simultaneously attempting to get Do-joon to remember the night in question and recount what really happened. Mother is remarkably complex. Bong has succeeded where many have failed in fusing drama and violence with both tenderness and moments of comedy. Such contradictory elements shouldn’t blend together so effortlessly, but here they do, often leaving the audience feeling conflicted. The ending, in particular, is a intensely bitter-sweet, but with a gloriously quirky twist that throws Mother’s character into a fresh perspective.

There are are also a number of standout, stellar performances within the film. Whilst Mother and her endearingly expressive face deserves credit, Bin Won as Do-joon displays remarkable emotional maturity conveying mental retardation without the classic mistake of over-emphasis, and he deserves commendation for his sensitivity and sense of humour on approaching the issue. Ku-Jin also stands out as Jin-tae, Do-joon’s friend who harbours a nasty and unpredictable edge and who’s susceptible to random bursts of violence. Bong avoids Hollywood’s favoured ‘spoon-feeding’ method of narrative exposition and offers up no back story. We continually question Jin-tae’s motives, and the experience is unsettling.

Stylistically, Mother is stunning. Hitchcock, the great “Master of Suspense”, would have been proud of the tension Bong manages to achieve through the careful cut-aways of Mother slicing roots; the camera moves slowly but purposefully forwards as her fingers approach the blade, her attention entirely on her son and his position at the side of the road. There are obvious nods to the films of Quentin Tarantino flavour within the film, but it feels more innate – after all, Tarantino has always described being heavily influenced by East Asian cinema, particularly the Japanese samurai genre. There are certain stylistic choices that echo Tarantino’s sense of cruelty, such as glistening droplets of intensely-coloured blood that seem to collect everywhere, or a tight-framed and disturbing shot of a battered broken face that’s laughing hysterically.

However, despite these Tarantinoesque moments,  Bong sets himself apart by weaving a tender underlay to the violence with the stigma of mental retardation. Mother’s relationship with Do-joon is endlessly complex, made all the more perplexing by Bong’s inclusion of a bedroom scene with incestuous implications. There’s not much to see, but the camera lingers as if to urge the audience to look closer. Much like Mother as a whole, the scene is subtle, beautiful and intelligently subversive.

Sophie Kingston-Smith