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Monday, 4 April 2011

Mother (2009)

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Stars: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin and Jin Goo

Transliterating into Korean, the words 'mother' and 'murder' appear the same, as 'madeo', the title of this film. That's because it's about both. The mother doesn't have a name but is played by Kim Hye-ja, an elderly Korean woman who runs a traditional medicine store and administers acupuncture to friends and neighbours without a license, while looking after her 28 year old son. He's Yoon Do-joon and he's a little slow, functional but with obvious mental issues that make it appear like he's high all the time. He doesn't think very quickly and he has a very problematic memory. It's a strange and fascinating relationship, one that unfolds leisurely in plenty of space, which proves a little strange when a young girl called Moon Ah-jung is murdered. Murder stories tend to be dark and claustrophobic, the style often mirroring the the subject matter, but this one refuses to follow that trend early on and that helps it to stand apart, even when the rain comes.

The cops can't even remember their last murder case, so you can imagine how well they're able to investigate. Do-joon was seen in the vicinity, having left the Bar Manhattan drunk and horny, and there's plenty of circumstantial evidence too. A golf ball he wrote his name on earlier in the day is found close to her body. Worst of all, he signs a confession, perhaps incapable of realising just what he's doing. So Nam Je-mon, the lead cop, closes the case, even though he knows Do-joon's mother personally. She hires a lawyer, Mr Gong, but he spends his time actively avoiding her. As nobody remotely believes that Do-joon could be innocent, it falls to her to attempt to clear her son's name. She isn't anything like your usual investigator so this isn't anything like your usual investigation, which unfolds in ways alternately comic and serious. Without training or knowledge, all she really has to go on is stubborn determination and luck.

Without any real information to help us, we can't do any detective work ourselves, so can hardly see this as a murder mystery. All we really get is the unnamed title character, Do-joon's mother, though that's not the dismissive statement it might sound like. At heart this is a character study, not just of this one woman but of motherhood in general, epitomised in this mother who through circumstance of birth (or maybe not) has a deeper attachment than most to her son. 'You and I are one,' she tells him, at a particularly heartfelt moment in the story, one that truly shocks more effectively than anything else in the story. Kim Hye-ja carries this film with her portrayal, which is deep from moment one and only gets deeper as the picture progresses. As we discover more about her, we discover more about the bond of motherhood as well, something so deep and meaningful that a mere film can hardly do it justice. This one does come closer than most.
I first encountered writer/director's Bong Joon-ho's work with Memories of Murder, a 2003 picture that also handles a murder story in a very unusual way, which impressed me on first viewing and has resonated with me ever since, not only because it starred one of my favourite Korean actors, Song Kang-ho. Then I saw his Korean take on the Japanese monster movie, The Host, which also starred Song and which also impressed me. Mother impressed enough people to win plenty of international acclaim, not least a win for Best Film at the Asian Film Awards. Kim Hye-ja isn't as experienced a film actress as Song, her experience mostly in playing mothers on television, but she provides a blistering performance here, one that won her a bunch of well deserved awards too. She is the heart of everything here, meaning that had she not done such a great job, the picture would have suffered for it. In many ways she simply is the picture.

Memories of Murder resonated because the murder was never solved. What we take away from it isn't a resolution but the absence of one, the flawed characters of those investigating the case and what could have been. Mother is going to resonate because of the resolution, not because of whodunit but because of the flawed characters of all those involved, and yes, what could have been. In this film it isn't as simple as blaming the perpetrator, you find that by the time the end credits roll, you'll be feverishly reevaluating everything that went before to ascertain just where the blame really lies. For a film shot with so much space, in every way, it's amazingly tight and the more you think about it, the tighter it gets. The leisurely pace is deceptive, the score assists it and scenes are often shot long. The frame is frequently sparse, beautiful in the stark way you often see when photographers become cinematographers. It all gives us space to think.
I thought a lot about the connections between characters, which are often surreal and ludicrous, but somehow entirely real. The story focuses on a bond between a mother and her son, the most natural connection in the world, but one with a special history that is mostly only hinted at. This mother connects to much of the town through her unlicensed acupuncture work, and gets better information out of that than through any official connections that ought to be there to help. Her lawyer proves the most surreal, consistently avoiding her until he's willing to talk on his terms, then doing so during a drunken karaoke session of all places. Even schoolchildren connect with each other through very adult actions based on sex, violence and bartered transaction. To get information from them, Do-joon's mother pays Jin-tae, his thug of a friend, who does very well out of her indeed. Does anyone do anything just because it's the right thing to do?

As Kim Hye-ja dominates when it comes to screen time, the rest of the cast serve as supporting actors, even Won Bin as Do-joon, a popular Korean actor appearing in his second huge picture after the phenomenally successful Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War. The simple Do-joon is not the sort of role he would be expected to play, suggesting a versatility that the years may prove. Jin Goo, from A Bittersweet Life and A Dirty Carnival, is a dynamic Jin-tae, who begins the film very thuggish but who gradually becomes deeper and more ambiguous as the story unfolds. I was impressed with Yun Je-mun, who played the lead cop, even though he did so very subtly. Of all those involved though, it's Bong Joon-ho's story, turned into a screenplay in collaboration with Park Eun-kyo, and it's this story that provides Kim Hye-ja with opportunity to create something special. The only unfortunate side is that I can't see anyone in the west making a film like this.

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