Bong Joon-ho's brilliant and beguiling Mother opens with the strange image of the elderly Kim Hye-ja -- the titular matriarch -- dancing, stone-faced, in a green field. Is she celebrating her power? Or is her dance mournful? It's impossible to know. While it may seem a mere stylistic flourish at the start, by the magnificent coda of the film, the image, for all its seeming opacity, makes perfect sense.
On the surface, the elements of Mother seem familiar enough. In the hands of your average filmmaker, it's a family melodrama/mystery about an irresponsible but good-natured mentally challenged young man, Do-joon (Won Bin of Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War), who's accused of murdering a schoolgirl. In the face of hostility from the victim's family and apathy from the police, his devoted mother is determined to prove Do-joon's innocence, taking whatever measures are necessary -- charming some and threatening others -- to protect her boy.
In his four features, Bong has shown a tremendous talent for taking seemingly straightforward cinematic ingredients and giving them a unique twist. Whether it's a serial-killer procedural in Memories of Murder or a giant monster running rampant in The Host, Bong defies audience expectation again and again with a boldly entertaining blend of genre elements and sociopolitical subtexts. Part of the triumph of Mother is that even fans who are expecting the filmmaker's genre-bending approach to the material will be consistently surprised and delighted by what Bong has in store.
Bong, who co-wrote the script with Park Eun-kyo, doesn't rush into the action. The plot develops at a naturalistic pace, but from the beginning, as Mother -- while at her job -- distractedly watches Do-joon play with a dog across the street, there's a sense of impending disaster. Do-joon is involved in a minor car accident, goes in search of vengeance with his reckless friend, Jin-tae (Jin Goo of the fine gangster films A Bittersweet Life and A Dirty Carnival), gets arrested, and gets drunk. Seemingly unconnected details accrue, and the tension builds. As Mother determinedly investigates, we gradually gain a deeper understanding of her heartrending relationship with her son, and we come to know the characters surrounding them, including the murder victim. It's a dark but enjoyably suspenseful journey. If anything, the filmmaker blends genre elements and moods even more seamlessly than he has in the past. A scene where Mother knocks over a bottle while sneaking out of a sleeping suspect's apartment, and watches, frozen, in silent terror as the spilled water slowly oozes across the floor toward the potential killer's outstretched hand, is typical of Bong's high-tension mastery.
Supporting performances by Won Bin and Jin Goo are wonderful, but this is Kim's movie. With grace and power, she makes us feel the intensity of Mother's pursuit, and every bit of pain, guilt, and sadness underlying her determination.
As the puzzle pieces begin to come together, the film transcends its genre trappings, and a rich portrait of an insular society emerges, with its provincialism, its class and gender iniquities, and -- hand in hand with Bong's typical cinematic playfulness and wit -- a surprisingly potent sense of underlying despair. Mother has been compared to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and for once, it's a valid comparison, as the sharp, suspenseful film delves into the complex psychosexual territory that Hitchcock made his trademark. But it's also singular, culturally specific, and clearly the work of a master filmmaker with his own unique style and impressive power.