After setting a monster loose on Seoul, director Bong Joon-ho has come up with something even more ferocious for his next film, MOTHER, a tale that explores the ferocity of the maternal instinct. Funny, tragic, disquieting, and absurd, it’s also nothing less than terrifying on a primal level.
The film begins with the title character alone in a field, dancing to music that only she hears, and moving through a world that only she inhabits. It’s a small pantomime of her inner state that is as hypnotic as it is disquieting. Played by the remarkable Kim Hye-ja, she is a poor widow barely getting by selling low-grade herbs and performing unlicensed acupuncture. She is the sole support of Do-joon (Won Bin), a beautiful, but mentally impaired son of 27 who has the attention span of a gnat and whose hormones have kicked in, a fact that makes his sharing of his mother’s bed, clinging to her breast as he falls to sleep, a veritable cornucopia of wrong despite its childlike innocence. That Do-Joon is slavishly devoted to Jin-tae (Ku Jin), a disreputable purveyor of bait and seducer of young girls doesn’t make Mother’s mind easy. Nothing would short of keeping him within her sight at all times and infantilizing him further than his condition warrants. When Do-joon is sideswiped by Mercedes in a hit-and-run, Jin-tae is determined to exact revenge by following them to a golf course, the which he does and then vandalized the car. Do-joon, meanwhile, sets about collecting golf balls from a water trap, and then carefully writing his name on them in order to use them to woo a girlfriend. When he’s framed for the damages by Jin-tae, he goes along with it.
It will all come back to haunt Do-joon when a girl is murdered and one of the golf balls is found by the body. Unable to come up with an alibi, and having, in fact, followed the girl for a while in an attempt to pick her up, Do-joon signs a confession without quite understanding what is going on around him. His mother, having extricated him from his previous scrape, is undeterred by the affable police officer she’s known since he was a child telling her it’s hopeless. She also undeterred by the condescendingly imperious manner in which she is treated by the defense lawyer she hires.
As both a deconstruction of family life gone wrong because of good intentions, and as an indictment of a society that has little notice, much less use, for its most vulnerable citizens, it is merciless. It is also nothing less than riveting thanks to Bong’s direction and its elegantly moody cast tinged with impudent perversity. Thanks, as well, to a tour de force performance by Kim. She is a figure at once brave and pathetic marching through the rain across an enormous landscape with what she believes in exculpatory evidence obtained with reckless courage. Relentless in her subservience, bowing, scraping, apologizing, but with eyes that have an animal ferocity and cunning that is all-consuming.
Secrets abound in the least expected places, and their individual revelation is parceled out with deliberate punctuation, heightening the sense of nihilism so at odds with a woman who has found a meaning for her life with maternal devotion that has a creeping psychosis to it. MOTHER deals with guilt, responsibility, and a world of casual brutality that is unconcerned about the distinction. By taking this most positive of human expressions, the enormous power of the maternal instinct, and twisting it with a perfectly reasonable extrapolation, Bong has created a film that is brilliant and troubling as it effectively unpins any sense of security by exposing the raw savagery that is one of its integral components, and making us laugh while we watch.