Monday, October 8, 2012
Joon-ho Bong's Mother is an extraordinary character study of a woman who will do anything for her son, a film that's full of surprises, narratively and tonally, and yet always remains rooted in its intense study of the titular mother (Hye-ja Kim) and her mentally handicapped son Do-joon (Bin Won). As with Bong's previous film, The Host, Mother skillfully balances multiple tones, shifting seamlessly from oddball comedy to melodrama to mystery to a rather strange kind of psychological thriller. The shifting tones and the instability of the narrative — much of which is built around Do-joon's unreliable memory — contribute to the sense that anything can happen at any moment, that the film is constantly in a state of flux, even as it revolves unceasingly around the warped mother/son relationship at its center.
The film's brilliant opening credit sequence establishes this sense of disorientation almost immediately. The film's first image is the mother walking slowly across a large field of wheat, looking downtrodden until she climbs up a hill to approach the camera, at which point she begins swaying rhythmically and dancing, languidly and deliberately, theatrically smiling and then covering her grin with her hand. This remarkable sequence, already jarring and oddly funny, is followed by a dramatic, foreboding image of this woman bathed in shadow, staring down the camera as the film's title appears onscreen. Already, Bong seems to be announcing that this will be an unconventional film, as unattached to any single genre as Bong's ostensible monster movie The Host was.
The film's drama emerges when the amiable, slow-witted Do-joon is accused of the murder of a schoolgirl after a drunken night when he followed the girl to an abandoned house, where she was found dead the next morning. Do-joon is a somewhat goofy, innocent soul who's constantly led into trouble by his friend Jin-tae (Ku Jin). At the beginning of the film, these two chase down a group of rich professors driving a Mercedes Benz that nearly hits Do-joon and his dog. Do-joon and Jin-tae chase the car to a golf course, where they hilariously get their revenge, with Jin-tae kicking off one of the car's rearview mirrors and Do-joon flying through the air in a failed martial arts move, crashing into the pavement without connecting with the car at all. The confrontation then degenerates into a comical, absurd wrestling match in a sand trap.
The film's tone shifts once Do-joon is arrested, as he signs a confession under pressure from the police, seemingly not even fully understanding what he's signing. His mother hires a high-priced lawyer who probably costs more than she can really afford, but the lawyer, who says he's so busy that he never sits down, never seems to have much interest in Do-joon or his mother. In one hilarious sequence, he summons the mother for a conference and delivers his recommendation at a bar, surrounded by his two passed-out friends and the giggling prostitutes they've hired, who clap politely as the lawyer delivers his advice to his client. Bong continually offers up these tonally destabilizing moments that undercut the drama of the situation with bizarre comedic asides.
He also ventures at times into an eerie murder mystery as Do-joon's mother investigates the crime, since the police have closed the case after arresting her son. To aid in her investigative efforts, she enlists Jin-tae, who at times comes across as a creepy suspect himself, particularly in a tense sequence where the mother hides in Jin-tae's closet, believing that she's found evidence that he was the killer, having to sneak out of his house while he's asleep. Bong enhances the tension by emphasizing the obstacle course of trash that the mother has to gingerly step around as she sneaks out, finally knocking over a bottle of water. Bong then cuts to a taut closeup of Jin-tae's fingers dangling close to the floor, the puddle of water slowly spreading towards his hand. Even after he's seemingly exonerated as the killer, Jin-tae maintains a creepy edge, as he becomes a bad cop to the mother's good cop, tracking down kids who knew the murdered girl and beating evidence out of them, culminating in a grisly sequence in which he traps one kid in a disused ferris wheel and kicks his teeth out.
The film's uneasy tonal balance is further disrupted by the fact that, the more the mother investigates and prods at Do-joon's memory, the more unsettling facts come to life, particularly about the relationship between mother and son. Even before Do-joon's arrest, there were intimations of a strange codependency between them; they slept together in the same bed every night, and when Do-joon stumbles in drunk late one night, he collapses onto the bed and instinctively, casually cups his hand on his mother's breast as he stretches out next to her wearing only his boxers. Eventually, even more troubling revelations come to light about their past, revealing just how twisted this woman is, revealing that there's something deeply warped in her affection and protectiveness for her son.
The film's harrowing, powerful final act goes even further, taking a mother's willingness to do anything for her son to its extreme. The film's unsettlingly cheery conclusion, in which the mother takes a "thank you mothers" bus ride given to her as a gift by Do-joon, builds on the film's theme of memory. The mother, who practices acupuncture illegally, says that she knows of a special pressure point on the thigh that eases the pain of memories, allowing one to forget about the past and move on. Much of the movie rests on her trying to get Do-joon to remember, to recall details about the night of the murder that might help prove his innocence, but in the end she decides that she doesn't want all these memories stirred to the surface after all, that it's better to forget, to ease the pain with a needle and then carry on as though nothing has happened. In the film's final image, she performs this procedure and, putting her pain behind her, she stands up with the other loving mothers on the bus and begins dancing, echoing the opening credits sequence, in an image that is at once ecstatic — with the sun shining through the bus' dirty windows, flaring at the camera — and bittersweet, since it represents the triumph of repression, denial, violence and lies.