An unnerving and deviously wicked tale of motherly devotion gone awry

Apr 14, 2010 at 12:00 am

As far as misanthropes go, Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho shows a lot of affection for his unhinged characters. Whether it's nature or nurture or an unhealthy mix of both, his latest, Mother, takes a morbidly alluring and bleakly ironic look at unconditional maternal affection, and how far a parent will go to stray from reality and embrace a lie.

Constructed like a warped retelling of Stella Dallas, the film follows a poor, overprotective mother (Kim Hye-ja) who becomes an implacable and bumbling force of nature when her mentally challenged son is arrested for killing a teenage girl. She doggedly investigates the murder, convinced that he has been railroaded. Confronting her son's thuggish best friend, a shady defense attorney and the victim's sordid past, she uncovers a world of troubled and decadent teens — all of which convinces her that her darling son is innocent.

With only four films to his name, Bong has quickly become a genre subversive, experimenting with tropes and themes that don't always work but frequently intrigue. His eco-conscious, family-centric monster movie The Host cleverly mixed black humor, virtuosic creature-feature thrills and political commentary in a way that recalls John Sayles-penned B-movies such as The Howling and Alligator.

Here, Bong channels Hitchcock by way of Claude Chabrol. Barely constructed as a procedural mystery, his engrossing character drama is eerily deliberate, training our attention on the details of provincial Korean life while skimping on the intricacies of a satisfying melodrama. Bong definitely knows how to build suspense but not necessarily how to draw us in enough to embrace his hysterically (both meanings of the word) maternal protagonist. Still, the story is built upon a cascading sense of inevitability; as the mother's bungling efforts bring her closer and closer to the truth, we can't help but admire the fierce certainty of her mission, even as she crosses into self-destructive extremes. Instead of depicting her as a mother warped by loyalty, Bong presents a woman who gradually reveals her underlying nature. 

Much of what makes it work is Kim's fearless performance. She perfectly captures the assumed humility of the lower class, someone who is used to being scorned and dismissed. Nevertheless, her mousy exterior betrays the furious righteousness that rages within. She won't give up, and woe to anyone who gets in the way of her mission to establish her son's innocence. Kim's portrayal is so authentically honest she hardly seems to be in a movie at all. 

Even Mother's terribly ironic ending, which Hollywood would overplay, is crisp, unshowy and wickedly shattering. Justice is no match for a mother's delusions, and Bong's acrid morality play perverts the conventions of the genre it is paying homage to.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 16-17, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 18. It also shows at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 23-24, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 25. Call 313-833-3237.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].