Bong Joon-ho's Mother Instinct
Mother, Bong Joon-ho's follow-up to The Host—the killer killer-tadpole allegory that was an international gross-out sensation, as well the top-grossing movie in South Korean history—is a more subtle, yet no less visceral, horror-comedy, fully worthy of its primal title.
One of the hits at last year's New York Film Festival, Mother opens as tumultuous slapstick with a grotesque hit-and-run accident on the main street of a rural Korean Nowheresville. But this tale of a 27-year-old village idiot, Do-joon (action heartthrob Won Bin), and the local madwoman who is his single parent, Hye-Ja (played by, as well as named for, South Korean TV's beloved icon of maternal virtue Kim Hye-ja), quickly darkens once someone bludgeons a local schoolgirl and leaves her body draped like a flag on the roof of an abandoned building. The crime literally hangs over the town. Do-joon, who is extravagantly oafish as well as mentally challenged, had a drunken encounter with the victim; he's accused of her murder and easily confused into signing a confession.
With the simpleton packed off to prison, Hye-ja's hyper-aroused maternal instincts drive the movie. A fixer who deals in medicinal herbs and illegal acupuncture, the mother campaigns indomitably for her child's release, handing out leaflets and hiring a fancy shyster and even presenting herself at the girl's funeral (thus provoking a brawl). In the film's latter half, the frustrated Hye-ja turns detective, attempting to pin the murder on Do-joon's only friend, while ransacking the town for clues.
Pushing Mother into a realm beyond routine policier is the giddy realization that there may be no lengths to which Hye-ja won't go to establish Do-joon's innocence—and that, although he might indeed be innocent, the mother-son dyad, vividly embodied by two actors cast blatantly against type, is founded on its own guilty secrets. The two share a bed, and Hye-ja is also a fount of bad maternal advice. While in jail, Do-joon has time to think about the past and confronts her with a recovered memory that allows the movie to pivot into psychological (or perhaps just Psycho) drama.
For all its jarring sound design and herky-jerky pacing, founded on sudden incidents or shocking accidents, Mother is deftly plotted, applying Hitchcockian suspense with a Hitchcockian sense of fair play. It would hardly be surprising if Hollywood attempted a remake—although it will be a rare studio movie with the nerve to re-create Mother's convulsive final reel, an ending that leaves its protagonist stranded in a moral netherworld, applying her acupuncture needle to the spot that "unknots the heart."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.