The films of the South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho operate like slyly constructed Rube Goldberg machines. His 2007 The Host, which made my list of 10 best films for that year, was a Godzilla-style monster movie that popped open to reveal a ghost story and a touching family drama hidden inside. Now, there’s Mother, a Hitchcock-ian murder mystery that unfolds into a maternal melodrama worthy of Joan Crawford, shot through with bursts of black humor. Bong’s ability to sustain three or four different tones in one movie without betraying the emotional truth of the story is nothing short of amazing: He can pat his head, rub his stomach, and break our hearts all at the same time.
Do-Joon (Won Bin) is a man in his late 20s who still lives, and shares a bed, with his widowed mother Hye-ja (Kim Hye-Ja) in a rural Korean town. The virginal, goofy Do-Joon is mildly mentally handicapped, but don’t call him “retarded”—he’ll fly into a rage and deck you with a Bruce Lee-style karate kick. Because of his friendship with a local hood, Jin-Tae (Jin Gu), Do-Joon sometimes gets in minor trouble with the police, but when he’s accused of murdering a teenage girl, the whole town is shocked. The night of the murder, Do-Joon was so drunk that he can’t provide a reasonable alibi, and a golf ball signed with his name is found next to the body. Confused and intimidated by the cops, Do-Joon signs a confession even as he maintains his innocence and is sent to jail to await sentencing. His mother sets out on a mission to clear her boy’s name, teaming up with one of her acupuncture clients to investigate the background of the murdered girl, who, as it turns out, was part of a schoolgirl prostitution ring.
Mother is a weird wild ride of a film, one that asks the viewer over and over again to let go of the movie we thought we were watching. As the twisty plot progresses, with the night of the murder returning in flashback from various witnesses’ points of view, the audience’s sense of security starts to unravel: Can we trust the mother? Can we trust the son? Can they trust each other? Kim Hye-ja is both funny and fearsome as the unyielding, overprotective, eventually near-deranged mother, and Won Bin, a former teen heartthrob in Korea, pulls off the difficult task of showing a simpleton’s hidden depths. The movie’s final image echoes its opening one: Hye-ja, the primal mother, dances, first alone, then absorbed into an ecstatic crowd. It’s a fitting coda for a movie that begins as a comedy, segues into a murder mystery, and builds to an emotional catharsis that’s reminiscent of Greek tragedy.