Not too many films can surprise me and play against my expectations from beginning to end, and Bong Joon-ho’s Mother didn’t quite, but it came closer to doing so than any other movie in recent memory. Even on the rare occasions when it didn’t exactly surprise me, it also didn’t play out the way I expected. At the end, I was somewhat incongruously reminded of the ending of the old Charlie Chan picture The Golden Eye (1948), where Mantan Moreland steps out of character and addresses the audience, “That’s Mr. Chan all over—when you think it is, that’s when it ain’t. And when you think it ain’t, that’s just when it is.” I’m afraid that was rather wishful thinking on the screenwriter’s part with The Golden Eye, but not so with Bong Joon-ho’s film.
My familiarity with Bong’s work only extends to The Host (2006), which I thought was wildly overrated, and his episode of Tokyo! (2008), which struck me as the weakest of that film’s three parts. As a result, I wasn’t prepared for Mother in any way. To start with, there’s the question of just what the film is in terms of classification. I settled on calling it a “crime/thriller,” and it’s certainly that, but it’s also a comedy, a drama and a mystery. In some ways, it’s a twisted Korean variant on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. In the end, it’s not quite like anything but itself.
In bare terms, the story is simple. When mentally challenged Do-joon (Bin Won) is arrested for murder on seemingly conclusive evidence, his mother (Hye-ja Kim) sets out to prove his innocence by finding the real murderer. Of course, Mother (she has no other name in the film) knows little or nothing concerning how to go about this, but as the film’s tagline says, “She’ll stop at nothing.” The situation isn’t helped by the fact that Do-joon—despite the urgings and suggestions of Mother—can’t actually remember what happened on the night of the murder of Moon Ah-jung (Mun-hee Na), a young lady of very dubious virtue. Whenever he does remember something, it’s about something else altogether—and at one point, about an event Mother doesn’t want him to remember.
The bare premise, however, doesn’t even scratch the surface of the movie’s labyrinthine twists and turns. Mother is always going in directions you aren’t likely to suspect. The problem with this from a critic’s standpoint is that it’s impossible to actually discuss these directions without revealing too much. That said, it’s interesting to go over the film a second time and see that all the pieces actually do fit, and that it isn’t merely a case of the viewer being blindsided by a lot of out-of-left-field events. Scenes that may seem arbitrary aren’t; they’re in the film for a reason. Bear that in mind at all times.
Knowing the basic story line will also not prepare the viewer for the film’s shifts in tone. Depending on where you are in the film, it can be funny, charming, disturbing, suspenseful and sometimes surprisingly brutal. Make no mistake, Mother can be extremely violent when it feels it needs to be. Astonishingly, these shifts in tone never seem awkward. In fact, they always seem just right. This is also true of the film’s extreme moral ambiguity. Some of this, but not all, can be attributed to the film’s penchant for black comedy. It also fits the very ambiguous world that Mother inhabits. I urge you to see the film for yourself. Oh, I can hear some of you now complaining about having to read subtitles, but you’re cheating yourself out of one of the best movies of the year if you don’t get past that. Rated R for language, some sexual content, violence and drug use.