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Kim Hye-Ja will do anything to save her son Won Bin (background) in Mother.
Korean: 마더
Year: 2009  

Bong Joon-Ho


Bong Joon-Ho, Park Eun-Kyo


Kim Hye-Ja, Won Bin, Jin Goo, Yoon Je-Moon, Jeon Mi-Seon, Yeo Moo-Yeong, Cheon Woo-Hee, Kim Jin-Goo, Lee Yeong-Seok

  The Skinny:

Bong Joon-Ho follows The Host with a superbly directed thriller featuring a commanding performance by Kim Hye-Ja. The fact that this isn't even Bong's best film should speak volumes about his talent.

Kevin Ma:

After the mega-blockbuster The Host (now Korea's highest-grossing film), director Bong Joon-Ho outdoes himself by trying not to outdo himself with Mother, a mystery-thriller that plays like a more intimate version of the director's 2003 classic Memories of Murder. While Mother doesn't achieve that level of masterful filmmaking, it still has the superb directorial touches and great performances to make this an easy pick for one of the best Korean films of 2009.

However, the film's potentially melodrama-infested plot is not the reason for the acclaim. Mentally-handicapped Do-Joon (Won Bin, in his first role since completing his military service) lives with his sometimes-overbearing Mother (Kim Hye-Ja, whose character is never given a name) in a small town, but he spends most of his time outside with his violent, foul-tempered friend Jin-Tae. One day, Do-Joon is nearly hit by a luxury car, prompting he and his friend to pursue revenge at the nearby country club. A sloppy confrontation later, Do-Joon's mother ends up having to pay for the damages, while Do-Joon simply goes home with a couple of golf balls with his name on it.

When Do-Joon's golf ball is found next to a murdered high school girl hanging over the roof of a building, the cops see it as an open-and-shut case and immediately arrest Do-Joon. Threatened by the police with interrogation and not having any memory of what happened that night, the absent-minded man-boy (who still sleeps next to his mother with his hand on her breast) can't even come up with proof to defend himself. However, his mother insists - even to the dead girl's family - that her son is innocent, and embarks on a journey to find the real killer.

Even though the investigation drives the film along, Bong Joon-Ho isn't interested in a crime procedural. Instead, the script by Bong and co-writer Park Eun-Kyo brings the clues to the Mother, and leaves the focus on her determined psychological state and the dangers she faces. Replacing a complicated web of clues is the complex emotions of the characters. In the hands of a lesser writer-director, Mother could've been overrun by hyperactive emotions, as it begins to resemble a melodrama. Bong and Park instead stick closely to thriller territory, telling the story with as little sentimentality as possible, and turning every human emotion into primitive instinct. This handling not only efficiently advances the story, but it also makes the characters' actions and their emotions more believable. This is not a film with a clear-cut ending, and the moral complexities suggested by the conclusion will disturb audiences who are used to seeing only good and evil in their films.

As strong as the script is, the strongest aspect of Mother is the continuing maturation in Bong's directorial style. Every shot and every camera movement is well-calculated, with no shot ever staying with a single frame for too long. Bong avoids the showy long-takes of his previous films, though the camera movements remain impressive at drawing attention to themselves. He also amps up the tension in a brilliant, Hitchcockian manner, often opting for extreme close-ups on specific actions or his actors' faces. The result is an often intense film by a confident filmmaker who doesn't need to resort to cheap loud scares to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

Of course, the only way Bong can rely on extreme close-ups is if the actors deliver, and they certainly do. Despite all the hoopla and the obvious challenges, Won Bin's role as the dim-witted Do-Joon isn't as showy one might expect. Meanwhile, Jin Goo's tough masculine persona obviously caught enough attention to earn him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at this year's Grand Bell Awards. But both men take a backseat to Kim Hye-Ja, who naturally dominates the film as the mother by virtue of her screen time. But because of Bong's avoidance of melodrama, Kim's performance is subtler than one might expect from a veteran TV actress, to the point that it almost seems anti-climatic. Nevertheless, there's no doubt that Kim has the command and the acting chops to make her character constantly compelling to watch.

However, Mother is ultimately Bong Joon-Ho's show. Like his friend and fellow filmmaker Kim Ji-Woon, Bong takes genre conventions and twists them to fit his own brand of storytelling. While Kim simply gives conventional genres new visual aesthetics, Bong pushes his genres to extremes. Just like using a true-life murder case in Memories of Murder for social commentary, Bong uses the murder mystery in Mother to push maternal sacrifice at a primitive level. Naturally, the film isn't as audience-pleasing as The Host (despite moments of dark humor), but what's lost in entertainment value is compensated plenty by superb storytelling. The Host may be a better commercial movie, but Mother is the better film. (Kevin Ma, reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 2009)


DVD (Korea)
Region 3 NTSC
2-Disc Special Edition
CJ Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Original Korean Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Korean Subtitles
Various Extras
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

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image credit: CJ Entertainment Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen