An incredibly powerful and complex portrait of maternal love, Mother mixes tragedy and goofiness, a combination fairly common in Asian films, but one at which director Bong Joon-ho is particularly adept. As in his first feature, Memories of Murder, police incompetence features prominently in the story of Do-joon, a mentally challenged young man who is more or less arbitrarily accused of the horrific murder of a school girl. But here, the central focus is on his mother (played by Kim Hye-ja, veteran actress and maternal icon of South Korean TV), an eccentric peddler of medicinal herbs and illegal acupuncture who endeavours to prove her son’s innocence.
Hye-ja’s detective methods are highly unorthodox, but the comedic side of her investigation gradually gives way to something much darker as the film shows how far she is willing to go to get her son out of prison. Simultaneously, the secrets mother and son share come to light, revealing an intricate, inescapable web of overwhelming love and guilt. Although Mother is constructed like a murder mystery, structured around escalating tension and gradual revelations, it is not a conventional police procedural but a psychological thriller, and the identity of the killer is important because of what it exposes about the characters’ relationships. There are many twists and turns that take us in unexpected directions and the film’s skilful plotting draws us deeper into Hye-ja’s psyche, making her pain increasingly affecting.
Visually, the film is just as superbly crafted, with a particular attention to colour: the purple clothes associated with the mother, the dark blue tones of the home she shares with her son, the increasingly murky tones of night scenes as she finds out more. There is a fairy tale quality to the scene of the murder, which is replayed several times as characters remember more details, or witnesses recount their memories of the event. The final sequence is set on a party bus lit by the setting sun, the warm, golden glow underlining the terrible fate of the tragic dancer in the midst of the unsuspecting revellers.
The film shares much with Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, not least the emotional intensity and the displacement of violence. Where the munching of a live octopus in Oldboy was meant to represent the anger the main character felt after being sequestered for 15 years without apparent reason, in Mother, an early scene depicting Hye-ja chopping herbs, the cutter getting increasingly closer to her fingers, announces the psychological and physical violence to come. But above all, the films have in common a protagonist facing a similarly dreadful, morally tainted choice in a heart-breaking finale. Like Dae-su in Oldboy, one of the characters in Mother will choose to forget and live a lie rather than remember an unbearable truth. Love is a wonderful and frightening thing indeed.