South Korean Film Mixes Genres Effectively
Thursday, March 18, 2010
KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews the new Korean film "Mother."
Don’t confuse the new Korean film “Mother” (opening March 19 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) with the Albert Brooks' comedy of the same name. South Korea’s “Mother” screened last year at the San Diego Asian Film Festival. Now it returns for an art house run. You can listen to my radio review.
“Mother” opens with a middle-aged woman walking in a large field. As music plays on the soundtrack, she stops and begins to dance awkwardly. There’s something disquieting but also mesmerizing about her behavior. This is followed by a scene in which the woman, the unnamed mother of the title, watches her adult son standing across the street from her shop where she’s chopping medicinal herbs.
Filmmaker Bong Joon-ho builds tension and a bit of black comedy by showing her bringing the blade down closer and closer to her fingers as she concentrates more on her son than her task. Then a car speeds by and wings her son. She runs out but we can’t tell if the blood we see is his or hers.
With the opening scenes of “Mother,” director Bong hooks us and never lets us go. Like David Lynch, Bong knows how to create a growing sense of unease as he looks behind polite social facades to find something unpleasant festering beneath.
On the surface, you could describe “Mother” as a tale of maternal love. But that’s like calling “Jaws” a film about some guys who go out fishing. The mother of Bong’s film is as dangerous and obsessive as that famous shark. So when her son gets arrested for the brutal murder of a local girl, mom will stop at nothing to prove his innocence. As she investigates the crime she uncovers not only the town’s dark secrets but also some skeletons in her own closet. At one point her mentally challenged son Do-joon gets hit on the head and suddenly starts to recall chilling memories of his childhood -- much to his mother's dismay.
Scenes like this play as both black comedy and poignant drama. And that’s Bong’s specialty. He’s a master at mixing genres. Previously in “The Host” he blended “Alien” with “Little Miss Sunshine” to deliver a sci-fi actioner about both a monster stomping Seoul and a dysfunctional family. Now he takes the long suffering maternal melodrama and grafts it onto a Hitchcockian murder thriller. Then he filters it through the distancing lens of devastating irony. So violence can sometimes play as slapstick as when Do-joon tries to rough up the Mercedes Benz guys who winged him with their car. Bong places the encounter on a golf course, which sets the economic status of the combatants in bold relief but also provides an absurd setting for an attempt at street justice. “Mother” is rife with such contrasts.
Playing up the contradictions is actress Kim Hye-ja as Mother. She plays it straight as the determined mom, often conveying poignancy in her maternal devotion. Yet she’s also a perversely funny monster exacting her own form of revenge and justice. Bong doesn’t show sympathy for her yet he never judges her either. In an odd way he may even admire her. Her love for her son at least gives meaning to her life in a way that makes her stand apart from the bland townspeople. At one point she dares attend the dead girl’s funeral to pass out fliers proclaiming her son’s innocence.
But this mother is also capable of monstrous acts and actress Kim keeps us riveted to the screen waiting to see what her character’s maternal instincts will drive her to next.
As with the opening scenes, director Bong displays meticulous control throughout his film. His framing, shot selection, and pacing all work to create an engrossing narrative about the evil committed in the name of love, and an evil that slips completely under the radar.
"Mother" is in Korean with English subtitles and is rated R for language, some sexual content, violence and drug use.
Companion viewing: "Memories of Murder," "The Host," "Psycho"