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M Is For The Million Things She Gave Him: Mother

It will be understandable if audiences have trouble deciding whether South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Mother is a brooding murder mystery, a disquieting psychological study, or a slyly restrained social exposé and satire. It is, of course, all of these, yet not really any of them in its total impact. It’s an idiosyncratic synthesis of generic borrowings. Joon-ho seems to be trying to evoke expectations and the search for generic guideposts even as he sets up to confound them.

It may be helpful to recall that this is the guy whose last film, The Host, centrally featured a killer tadpole (and was the biggest grosser in South Korea’s film history). Or it may not help at all. What will be apparent is Joon-ho’s skill at keeping his film fluid but atmospheric and intermittently startling, occasionally rather unpleasantly so.

The titular maternal parent is Hye-ja (played by the same-named and admired TV personality Kim Hye-ja). She’s a 50ish, small-town, small-time herbalist who dotes obsessively on her simple-minded 27-year-old son Do-joon (the romantic idol and action-film star Won Bin). He’s a spoiled, childish, and oafish slacker who can’t really care for himself. In an early scene, we sight him standing outside his mother’s shop, framed by the doorway, as she cuts herbs and watches him.

Mother starts slowly and then quickens erratically as its first screw-up occurs, a farcical series of shaggy-dog sequences about a hit-and-run accident that interrupts this quiet street scene and sends Do-joon and his friend Jin-tae off in pursuit, before everyone winds up at the local police station. But this is really preparation for Hye-ja’s intensifying plight when Do-joon is arrested for the bludgeoning death of an adolescent schoolgirl after he spends a largely solitary night getting drunk and can’t remember what happened during his outing.

Joon-ho handily navigates this unlikely transition, carrying us along as his film grows darker, if never quite bleak. The bulk of Mother follows Hye-ja’s increasingly desperate attempts to free her son. Where at first she too seemed a little slow and inept, she is now resolute and resourceful, if sometimes misguided, in her efforts on his behalf. She and we encounter repeated instances of indifference and provincial venality, cruelty and stupidity, particularly among the youthful peers of the dead girl. Mother begins to resemble a noirish detective movie probing society’s underbelly, but things are never quite that centered and propulsive. There’s a nagging sense of incompletion and dislocation.

Joon-ho at long last gives us a revelation of a secret that may modestly explicate the odd, queasy bond between mother and son. But he never relinquishes his distanced relationship to his own material, even at one late, horrific juncture. It’s as if he hadn’t creative agency over these events but was just observing them with wry detachment.

Joon-ho’s offbeat casting of the two leads pays off remarkably well under his direction. As the human center of his quirky, disturbing film Hye-ja is both subtle and vital. And Won-bin makes Do-joon, a role that might seem more conceptual than convincing, into a real person.

If it’s not quite clear what general effect Joon-ho was aiming for, Mother is oddly, disconcertingly involving much of the time. And although I imagine he would disclaim any humanist intent, there’s a strange sense of something like compassion that finally seeps into this film.

Watch the trailer for Mother

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