Bong Joon-ho knows his monsters. In the director's movie The Host, those monsters emerged from the depths of the Han River to munch civilians. In Memories of Murder, they hid in the mind of a deranged killer. With Mother, Bong shows us monsters all over small-town South Korea. They are the police. They are the lawyers and doctors walking among us, the drunken grandmothers, bullies, thieves, tramps and thugs. But the fiercest beast of the lot is a mother protecting her young.
Mother sees Bong take a hard left into Hitchcock whodunit mode. Combining comedy, police-procedural drama, psychological horror, and Oedipal overtones, the film tells the dark tale of a crackpot mom (a sizzlingly effective Hye-ja Kim) whose mentally deficient son, Do-joon (doe-eyed Bin Won), is railroaded for the bizarre slaying of a schoolgirl. Driven by maternal instincts to protect her baby—a grown adult who still sleeps beside her nightly—the nameless matriarch journeys into the dark underbelly of society to find the real killer, while her imprisoned son struggles to prod his memories of the fateful night. A back-alley acupuncturist who seldom leaves her block, she is forced to confront harsh realities and seedy characters unseen in her sheltered life, with the kinky results sometimes bordering on Lynchian freakouts.
Mother's setup is standard justice-must-be-served material, but in the hands of Bong (who also co-wrote the screenplay), nothing is simple. Opening like a lucid dream with an extended shot of Kim dancing blank-facedly in a field of chaff, the film quickly switches gears into a bittersweet comedy about an overbearing mother and her slow-witted son. When the murder occurs, the film begins mutating at a rapid clip, going from oddball comedy to lurid suspense and brooding tension, often within the same scene. It's impossible to predict where Bong's taking us, but with such a controlled director leading the way, Mother's tonal shifts never feel forced. Like his neo-auteur compatriot Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Thirst), Bong mixes oil and water into a riveting chemistry experiment. Moreover, he doesn't beat us over the head with any of the film's themes: Any other director would make a forced statement about mental patients in prisons, but Bong keeps his film focused on Mother's single-minded quest for the truth. He has created a darkly comic, sometimes suffocating film that would make old Alfred proud. R.
opens Friday at Fox Tower.