I enjoyed “The Host” for two big reasons. First off was the humor, the monster stuff was done well enough but the quirky family at the center of the story was by far the feature attraction. Secondly, the courage to not have a traditional feel good ending where every main character survives the final showdown. This is always gonna play well in my household. Director Joon-ho Bong’s first full-length follow up to “The Host” is a rural murder mystery/ character study called “Mother”.
“Mother” follows well, Mother, a middle-aged woman who works as an herbalist and unlicensed acupuncturist while caring for her slow-of-mind adult son Yoon Do-joon. Do-joon is an irresponsible young adult who drinks to excess and pursues women with the manner and tact of a Neanderthal. His best friend Jin-tae is sharper of wit but equally lazy and unprincipled. Early on Do-joon is nearly run down by some pompous professors on a golf trip and he and Jin-tae hide away on the golf course to exact revenge. The revenge goes poorly and the police end up demanding that Do-joon pay for a BMW mirror that Jin-tae broke. The two decide to commiserate by meeting for drinks later that evening, only Jin-tae never shows up. On his way home from the bar, a drunk and horny Do-Joon follows a school girl named Ah-Jung until she vanishes into a dark alley.
The next day the girl is found dead on a rooftop near where Do-joon last saw her. It doesn’t take the police long to finger him for her murder. The local detectives’ procedure is lax and filled with private admissions of inexperience. Eventually they coerce Do-joon into signing a confession and shortly after his heartbroken mother tries to convince the police that Do-joon is incapable of such a crime. Mother hires a high-minded lawyer to fight the conviction but he is ineffectual and looking out for other interests. After a late night visit from Jin-tae, who wants reparations from Mother for falsely accusing him of Ah-Jung’s murder, Mother fires the lawyer and undertakes solving the girl’s murder on her own.
“Mother” is a better film than “The Host” if only because it relies solely on observation and character and skips the giant monster. The main players are all multi-layered and complex. Many of them like Jin-tae are as helpful as they are contemptible. Mother herself is a seething mess of anxiety; but somewhat unexpectedly it is not all about the well-being of her son. In the middle of her struggles Mother reveals a keen awareness of her reputation and the public’s perceptions. It is a quality that drives her to incredible lengths to exonerate Do-Joon and for the viewer it makes watching her a constant exercise in discerning motivations. The secondary characters carry with them many of the ideas that filmmaker Joon ho Bong forwarded in “The Host”. Just as a homeless man played a big heroic role in the finale of that film so to do we find that the most honest man in “Mother”’s small town is the local junk collector. Conversely the authority figures all seem to be working to profit from the case, do as little work as possible, and set-up their cronies to benefit from Do-joon’s fate.
The two most impressive aspects of “Mother” are the cinematography and the humor. Joon-ho Bong’s knack for adding levity in the right amounts turns an all-to-familiar crime scene sequence into a subtly funny display of ineptitude and callousness. A good deal of the scene's humor is derived from really careful attention to composition. The dead body hangs in just the right place to bring out the absurdity of the conversation. It is an expertise that that is displayed over and again. For example, Mother is always framed to perfectly inform the audience visually as to her place within the scene and the story at a given time. It is safe to say that what cinematographer Kyung Pyo-Hong doesn’t know about framing is probably not worth knowing. His work on “Mother” is as puckish as it is lyrical, elegant, and informative.
My complaints about the film are minimal but there is one set of images involving a rock that just don’t jibe well. The rock in question is the murder weapon and it is of considerable size. On the night the girl gets murdered it is tossed back and forth a couple of times. The big problem is that the ease and distance that the rock is thrown significantly tests the boundaries of verisimilitude. It is a forgivable disproportion to be sure but I keep wondering if I am missing a sly joke.
Mother is a very good film. The central character is a victim, a heroine, a hypocrite, and a delusional narcissist. All of these roles fit her like a yoke and the contexts in which she wears them allows us to still have sympathy for her by story’s end. It is remarkable that Joon-ho Bong can grant her so much depth and still dole out humor, tension and social commentary in the right measures. Oedipal, Shakespearean, and defiantly ambiguous this “Mother” is well worth a couple hours of your time, just don’t expect to feel nurtured after it is over.