Mother (2009, Bong Joon-ho)

The latest thriller from the director of The Host takes fewer sidetracks and has a more sustained atmosphere, though it lacks some of the monster movie’s more extremely exciting scenes. Just as astoundingly excellent, maybe even better than The Host, which I wasn’t expecting from the plot description.


Bin Won (of The Brotherhood of War) is the son Do-joon, a slow guy who leans on friend Jin-tae (Ku Jin of A Bittersweet Life), whom Mother tells her son is a bad influence. DJ’s friend and mother have always told him to stand up for himself, to fight anyone who insults him, so when the boys get in trouble attacking a guy who hit DJ with his car (and smashing up the car), JT pins the costly damage on his forgetful friend, who accepts his guilt.

Film Comment on character:

Diminutive yet ferocious, Kim embodies Mother as the ultimate survivor. And she’s surviving for two—her relationship to her son is so symbiotic he’s practically an appendage. Frantic and penniless, Mother uses all of her meager advantages: the perceived innocuousness and near-invisibility of an elderly woman. The delicately handsome Won Bin transforms himself into a credible simpleton just by the way he breathes and by assuming the stunned look of a stoner. Do-joon frustrates everyone, dimly working things out, sometimes years after the fact. Like Mother, he is not quite what he seems. Won barges through the film, conveying the confusion of a stunted child desperate to break free, only not before dinnertime.


So when JT is accused of murdering a girl, his mother (Hye-ja Kim) knows he didn’t do it, and swings into action. She hides in JT’s closet and retrieves the bloody potential murder weapon, but the cops tell her it’s not blood, it’s lipstick. She confronts the grieving family of the girl at her funeral to explain that her son is innocent. And she follows a long trail to locate the dead girl’s missing cellphone – seems she was a slut with a phone full of men in compromising positions, and everyone wants the phone, but DJ’s mother finds it first and it leads her to the old junk collector, who witnessed the murder, saying her son is guilty.


She doesn’t take that well, kills the old guy and burns his place, gets home to find that her son is free as the cops have arrested another mentally-challenged guy for the murder (she meets the boy, asks him “Do you have a mother?”). Final scene is exceptional. She’s taking a bus cruise, pulls out her acupuncture needles and sticks one in the secret place that causes you to forget all your worries. Uninhibited dancing ensues, shot all zoomed-in, jittery and backlit, abstract revelry.

Just won best film, actress and writing at the Asian Film Awards, whatever those are. Oh wow, Yatterman and Symbol were nominated for stuff. Sounds like a more fun award show than most. This movie might mark a turning point for me, in a way. It was playing theatrically here (at my least-favorite theater) but I chose to stay home and watch it in HD instead… and I don’t regret it, don’t feel like I missed anything. I had perfect picture quality, control over the show time and environment, and about as large an audience as I would’ve seen at the weekend matinee of a foreign film in Atlanta. Of course it’s rare that a movie would be available in HD at the same time it’s playing in theaters, so perhaps not a choice I’ll be making very often.

Cinema Scope:

Bong has become one of the premiere narrative film artists now working—and while that label does hang a trifle portentously over Bong’s commendably unpretentious head, this only shows how difficult it is to place him. Another small-town murder tale, Mother once again demonstrates Bong’s ability to render violence, sadism, and brutality (even that, most troublingly, of a sexual nature) at once entirely serious and screwball comic without offense.