With prices for cinema tickets now reaching ridiculous heights it’s not often I will treat myself to a new release unless it’s something I simply cannot wait for. Instead, I’m happy to content myself with a cheap DVD or a film on TV which may have slipped through my critical net and, believe me, there have been far too many. Whether the films featured here are recent or old I’ll still be providing my honest opinion on them and, with the benefit of hindsight in many cases, may offer a slightly different take to contemporary reviewers.
Good parents are always there for their children and will do everything in their power to protect them from harm. In Joon-ho Bong’s Mother we have a woman who tries to look out for her son but outside influences lead him down a perilous path and into a collision with justice when he is imprisoned for murder. After the silly but amusing The Host I was curious whether Joon-ho Bong’s murder mystery would be a thriller or a disappointment.
Set in a quiet village in South Korea the film’s focus is on a mother (Hye-ja Kim), whose name we never learn, and her mentally disabled adult son Yoon Do-joon (Bin Won). The mother’s life is spent selling herbs and performing unlicensed acupuncture on the side while she keeps an eye on her vulnerable son. Do-joon frequently hangs around with Jin-tae (Ku Jin) which leads to both men having brushes with the law. One night Do-joon goes to meet Jin-tae for drinks but when his friend doesn’t show he makes his way home. On the way back Do-joon spots a schoolgirl and calls out to her, prompting the girl to duck into a darkened shelter. A large rock is thrown at Do-joon from the shelter prompting him to forget the girl and head home. The next day the schoolgirl is found dead on the roof of the shelter, hanging over a railing in full view of the entire village which causes much confusion amongst the police, wondering why a killer would put their victim so clearly on show. Do-joon is charged with murder and imprisoned with the police satisfied with their limited evidence against him. The film then turns to the mother who sets out to prove her son is innocent but in order to discover the truth she is forced to dig deep into the clandestine and dark areas of society and into the life of the murdered schoolgirl, Moon Ah-jung (Mun-hee Na).
The first hour of Mother covers the relationship between Do-joon and his mother, a relationship that leads to much sniggering to observers as Do-joon happily reveals he sleeps with his protective mother though his meaning is obviously misinterpreted. Do-joon’s friendship with Jin-tae is a fond one but does lead to clashes with the law, the earliest being after Do-joon is the victim of a hit and run but escapes serious injury. Both Jin-tae and Do-joon pursue the car to a golf course and proceed to vandalise it before confronting the owner. With his mental disability Do-joon is easily led though appears completely harmless, struggling to remember events just moments after they have happened. When he is charged with murder Do-joon’s difficulty with memories plays into the hands of the police and they prey on his disability in coercing him into signing a confession. Do-joon’s mother is convinced of his innocence and at first suspects Jin-tae to be the culprit. However, after falsely accusing Do-joon’s best friend, the mother and Jin-tae join forces and delve into the life of Moon Ah-jung who has secrets, giving more than one person reason to kill her.
The second half of the film is primarily about the mother trying to unlock the mystery behind Moon Ah-jung’s murder. As the story unfolds she calls on Jin-tae to administer some violent means of interrogating people who may have information. While she investigates the case the police believe to be closed the mother prompts Do-joon to keep trying to remember what happened on that fateful night. Do-joon has some heart-warming characteristics with his memory coming back via massages of his temples with his fingers but there are other aspects to his character, instilled by his mother that have greater bearing on the events in the film. Mother really comes alive as a thriller in the second hour and we can speculate about who did kill Moon Ah-jung. As with the best mystery thrillers there is a twist waiting in the wings but even when it’s revealed the mother still has a choice about how far she’ll go to protect her son.
Aside from the first hour having the odd ponderous moment there is little wrong with Mother. The tense atmosphere makes for an unnerving experience particularly the dark path leading to where Moon Ah-jung is murdered. Whenever this section was revisited during the night I felt a general sense of unease and was left wondering if any further hostilities were waiting to be unleashed. The opening to the film raises many questions with the mother dancing blissfully in a field but this is not explained till the brilliant and surprising ending which is more than worth the wait. Bin Won’s is a great performance as the fragile Do-joon but it is Hye-ja Kim that easily steals the show with an assured and excellent portrayal of the tortured mother who has spent all her life protecting her son and the lengths she is prepared to go to for justice are far beyond what many parents could face. The revelations at the end when Moon Ah-jung’s killer is unmasked were brilliant but Mother still has plenty more to reveal in its terrific conclusion.
Joon-ho Bong’s Mother is a massive improvement on his popular horror comedy The Host. An absorbing an effective murder mystery, reminiscent in places of a Jodi Picoult novel Mrs B recently read, Mother will keep you guessing right to the end and the characters of the mother and Do-joon have a lot to reveal beneath the first impressions we are led to make of them in the opening reels. A thoroughly tense and gripping thriller, this one is not to be missed.
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