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.”