Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bong Joon-ho’s Mother

Mothers worry. It’s what they do. One Korean mother has good reason to worry more than most. Her slow-witted son, Yoon Do-joon, has a knack for getting into trouble and taxing their meager financial resources. Yet when he is manipulated into confessing to murder, clearing his name may cost her everything in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (trailer here), which opens theatrically in New York this Friday

As an unlicensed acupuncturist, Yoon’s unnamed mother has trouble making ends meet. He does not make things easy either. Though in his late twenties, he is not much of a bread winner. He hangs out with the wrong crowd, drinking, fighting, and carousing. Still, his mother knows he is not a bad kid. So when the lazy cops trick the vulnerable Yoon into a confession, his mother is his only hope.

Much like Twin Peaks’s Laura Palmer, the murdered girl had a murky extracurricular life that might have gotten her killed. Indeed, Mother’s mysterious vibe and its small town secrets very definitely bring to mind the work of David Lynch. Yet, like Bong’s previous genre pictures, it is first and foremost a tragedy. However, Yoon’s mother surpasses all Bong’s previous angst-ridden characters as a tragic figure of truly classic proportions.

While Won Bin is quite convincing as the difficult Yoon, Kim Hye-ja truly is Mother, both the character and the film. Long the personification of motherhood for Korean audiences for her role as a family matriarch on a long-running television drama, here Kim simultaneously plays with and against type. Her Mother is fiercely protective, yet there is something dark and dreadful lurking within her—maybe not Medea-dark, but undeniably tragic in the Greek tradition. It is a searing performance that absolutely defines and dominates the film.

With credentials from the 2009 Cannes and New York Film Festivals, Mother is more than just a genre mystery picture, though it is still effective on that level. Bong maintains an unsettling mood and skillfully handles the film’s ironic revelations. Aside from one oddly surreal motif, Mother has an unremitting naturalism that actually acts as an effective restraint on Bong’s tendency to politicize his films, seen at its most pronounced in the over-rated The Host and to a lesser extent in his very strong sophomore feature Memories of Murder.

Arguably, Mother is Bong’s best, most mature work yet. Viscerally affecting, it is an unsparing portrait of maternal love and desperation. Successful as genre and art-house cinema, Mother is a return to form for the talented director. It opens Friday (3/12) at the IFC Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Theater.