It’s little wonder why action movies are the poles that keep the studio tents from collapsing. Everyone can understand action. Everyone can be excited by loud explosions, gunfights and duels to the death. This universal appreciation also extends to horror and sex. Make a movie with all three of these elements and it’ll be an international hit. Director/writer Bong Joon-ho’s latest offering, Mother, has very little of any of these elements, yet ironically the film is very easy to relate to – even from an American perspective. What moviegoer can’t appreciate a mother’s love and loyalty for her child?
In Mother, Kim Hye-ja plays the title role of a single-mother, raising her adult son Do-Joon (Won Bin) who happens be a little slow mentally. Walking home drunk one night, Do-Joon has a run-in with a local school girl and then goes home to sleep off the alcohol. The next morning, the school girl is found dead and all of the evidence points to Do-Joon. Only his mother believes in his innocence and she summons every ounce of her willpower and conviction to prove it. Her journey takes her into dark memories and even darker territories that force her to confront realities she isn’t prepared to accept.
Mother is very Korean, which may distress some Western audiences. It’s also hard to separate the character traits from the culture. So while it’s common practice for Korean sons and daughters to live with their parents until their 30’s, it’s not commonplace to see an adult child sharing a bed with his mother and touching her intimately in Korea. Western audiences may inadvertently assume that all Koreans sleep that way. Unfortunately, these nuances will only be obvious to viewers familiar with the culture, since no concessions were made to explain these details to outsiders.
Nevertheless, what audiences will appreciate most is the indomitable spirit of the Mother. She is eternally hopeful and driven in her single-mindedness, using every parlor trick and manipulation tactic she knows to save the one thing she cherishes most in the world. She’s a wonderfully sympathetic character. Hye-ja’s Mother is everything that every viewer sees in their own mother. She’s sometimes flighty, somewhat overbearing and fiercely protective of her child. Hye-ja turns in a stellar performance throughout the film and easily carries the production in every scene.
The supporting cast helps add a certain reality to the film with their excellently crafted roles. Every character feels like he or she exists in the real world and don’t simply follow a script. Won Bin’s dimwitted Do-Joon especially stands out with moments of inspired acting. One particularly poignant scene has him paralyzed with indecision after realizing he’s done something wrong. His confusion and frustration with his inability to reason through his thoughts is heartbreakingly palpable.
The pace of Mother is deliberate and slow – maybe too slow. A good portion of the film is spent simply living with the characters, watching them eat or work or have trivial conversations. Western audiences may feel that the movie only comes alive once the Mother begins her investigation in earnest. There also seems to be an overabundance of unnecessary characters in this film. They have just enough to say and do to make audiences invest in them emotionally only to discover that these characters aren’t integral to the story and simply add texture.
Mother is beautiful to watch and is definitely styled. Director Bong Joon-ho’s touch is obvious throughout the film, like in the stoic title shot and the flashback/present day blend in real-time. The cinematography also does a wonderful job at illustrating characters’ state of mind without being heavy-handed.
Overall, Mother is solid entertainment with a lot of undeniable heart. The subject matter is very dark and complex, but the story is satisfying and the acting is superb. If audiences can get through some of the slower moments, they’ll find a rare gem of a foreign film that will appeal to more than just their basic emotions.