Review: Mother (2009)

Directed by: Joon-ho Bong
Written by: Joon-ho Bong, Eun-Kyo Park, Wun-kyo Park
Starring: Hye-ja Kim, Bin Won, Ku Jin, Yoon Jae-Moon
Released: 2009 / Genre: Psychological Thriller / Country: South Korea
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Hye-ja Kim is the mother of Do-joon (Bin Won), a young man with learning difficulties, who becomes the last person to see the victim of a murder. The police, pressured to find a scapegoat use circumstantial evidence to place Do-joon at the scene of the crime. Charging him with murder, the police coax him into signing a confession and he is imprisoned. He can’t remember details of the night the girl died but his mother never doubts his innocence. She sets out to find the real culprit, uncovering the murder victim’s lascivious past and her many sexual partners. Helped by small-time crook Jin-tae (Ku Jin), Mother (who is never named) begins to discover a chain of evidence that will uncover the killer. But how far will she go to get the proof of the murdered? And at what cost?

Expect the unexpected. Writer-director Joon-ho Bong, a ten year veteran of the South Korean film industry, is known, thanks to his critical and commercial 2006 hit The Host, for subverting expectation. He has a natural tendency to flirt between amusing farce and the dark side of human dysfunction. His 2009 mystery, about a doting mother desperately trying to find the culprit behind a murder her son is wrongly imprisoned for, is no different. Witness the film’s opening expanse on a sun-kissed grass field, Hye-ja Kim’s Mother walking towards camera to Byeong-woo Lee’s acoustic melodies, where she begins to haphazardly dance as if in rhythm with the sounds of the wind. Joon-ho Bong is telling us that not all is as it seems.

mother, 2009, joon-ho bong, Hye-ja Kim, Bin Won, Ku Jin, Yoon Jae-Moon, south korea, film review

That’s not to say the film is unconventional. As murder-mysteries go this is by-the-numbers with Mother becoming a sort of Korean Miss Marple, her investigation into the murder flooded with intriguing character development and a few red herrings. Indeed, Bong has no trouble taking his audience on a ride of discovery, as we put together the pieces as Mother uncovers them. The film finds its singularity in its tone rather than its narrative. It appears unhindered by a moment of comical buffoonery mixed with carefully constructed melodrama, yet at times it feels like two different films slapped together to make a whole. Joon-ho Bong’s film is like a caged animal that keeps getting out every so often before being put back in its prison. It ensures the experience is unique if a little disconcerting.

mother, 2009, joon-ho bong, Hye-ja Kim, Bin Won, Ku Jin, Yoon Jae-Moon, south korea, film review
Hye-Ja Kim as Mother: “If you recall or remember something be sure to tell just me…”

What is more unfavourable is Bin Won’s performance as Mother’s son Do-joon. Admittedly, the role is the most difficult to play given the character’s obvious but under-written mental instability, but Bin Won can’t find the line between over-the-top histrionics and understated sadness. It becomes an infuriating battle between the character and the audience – in some ways the character is begging to be understood but the confused visage leaves much to be desired. Director Bong also leaves a sub-plot undernourished concerning his relationship with his mother. The pair openly talk about Do-joon’s sex life and, sleeping in the same bed, Do-joon appears to put his hand provocatively on his mother while she sleeps. The accusation of incest is an interesting undercurrent to their relationship but it remains an aside rather than a major piece of the puzzle.

Despite Bin Won’s wayward performance, it is somewhat tempered by Hye-ja Kim’s strong turn as Mother. She commands the screen with a kind of underplayed madness. Her love for her son is overpowering, at times destructively so. Hye-ja Kim, who won Best Actress at the 4th Asian Film Awards for her role in the film, is mannered and composed throughout. Her anguish, indeed her anger, comes out in a small burst of screams and flailing arms when Do-joon remembers she abused him as a child. Otherwise the only time she appears to be care-free is when she’s dancing – the footnote and endnote that director Bong utilises to beautiful effect.

Certainly, Mother is at its best when the complicated relationship between mum and son is brought to the fore. Bong weaves us through the tale to a devastating conclusion that forces this familial bond to explode in a powerful and violent conclusion. Although the film takes some liberties with a plot that hangs precariously on a deus ex machina (Do-joon’s unpredictable memory seems to fail him at all the right moments, and likewise, it begins to work when the plot calls for it), Joon-ho Bong’s psychological thriller is a tantalising and immersive piece of work. Kudos also to Sae-kyoung Moon’s perfectly paced editing. Like the murder-mystery at the film’s core the finer points may remain enigmatic but that’s what repeat viewings are for. And with the focus on Hye-ja Kim’s maternal sleuth, Mother is an unpredictable oddity that will infuriate as much as it delights.

Review by Daniel Stephens


DVD Details for UK release (release date is 20th September):
Extras: The Making of Mother, the transformation of Hye-Ja Kim, cast and crew reflect, TRAILER
DVD Tech specs: R/T: 124mins / Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 / Region: 2 / Pal / colour/ KOREAN Language / ENGLISH SUBTITLES/ dolby digital 5.1/ DOLBY DIGITAL 2.0 / Catalogue number: OPTD1825 / Cert: 15
Blu-Ray Tech specs: R/T: 129 mins / Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 / Region: B / DUAL LAYER BD50 / KOREAN Language / English Subtitles / 5.1 DTS HD Master / Dolby digital 2.0 / Colour / Catalogue number: OPTBD1825 / Cert: 15
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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Fitz Reply

    A film loses me when it starts pushing the incest angle. I just can’t stomach it on film – that or rape scenes for that matter.

  2. Avatar
    Castor Reply

    Very good movie with a series of unexpected twist at the end. I agree that Bin Won had a really uneven performance that made his character completely impervious to being “studied”. He was quite unpredictable but on a good note, he did have a threatening aura at times to keep us guessing. Hye-ja Kim was absolutely superb and communicated a lot non-verbally which is always a sign of a strong performance.

    Good review Dan 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Fitz: I know what you mean and it’s something that doesn’t interest me either. But it’s infuriating when a film hints at something subversive and morally contemptible but leaves the audiences hanging. Others may not even notice the reference or relate to it differently but I do think the film could have been a few notches better had such elements not felt so underdeveloped.

  4. Avatar
    amy Reply

    I demand an Oscar for Best Actress for this film. *raises fists* – I really liked the ending though, as it gives Bin Won’s character that tinge of “well, he’s not completely nuts” and shows that… well, he really loves him “umma”. xD

    Did anyone else loved the cinematography on that last bus shot? xD

  5. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    I agree with Fritz about the incest angle: it’s not something I want to see explored in film, because it goes against every principle of being human. I read another review on this film (I can’t remember where, now) which was as mixed as yours Dan, so I’m still on the fence about seeing this.

    No doubt Hollywood will remake and recast this, with Betty White in the lead role. Now THAT’s a film I’d see.

  6. Avatar
    Jaccstev Reply

    Like the film but didn’t love it, “The Host” is still Joon-ho Bong’s best for me.

  7. Avatar
    Novroz Reply

    great review Dan!! I love this movie because of its unpredictable plot.

    When the culprit was revealed…wow I never have thought it was him.

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