Everybody has a mother. One can only hope to have one as fierce and protective as the one in Bong Joon-ho's Mother.
A surprising story from South Korea that builds in suspense, Mother is about the extremes to which one mother is willing to go to save her child from harm. By the end, you can't help but admire her blind devotion to her offspring, if not her methods.
Kim Hye-ja plays the mother, a lowly worker in a small suburb who ekes out a living to support her apparently brain-damaged or otherwise developmentally impaired adult son. A 27-year-old with a hoodlum for a best friend, Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin) is easily led, and easily led astray. And he has a volcanic temper, particularly when anyone refers to him as "retard."
After an incident in which he and his pal are arrested for harassing a group of executives on a golf course (their car had sideswiped Yoon in the street without stopping), Yoon is warned off spending time with Jin Tae (Jin Goo), the thug. But when a schoolgirl turns up dead, the cops seek out Yoon, getting him to admit that he may have killed her before throwing him in jail.
His mother, however, can't believe her son is capable of murder. So when the police refuse to consider alternative suspects, she begins investigating the death herself. She goes so far as to enlist Jin Tae, guilting him into helping his friend.
There are a number of directions this could go, as she peels away layers of the events and finds that none of the actors are who they seem. Eventually, she uncovers a motive for murder, involving the girl's wild sexual history and her tendency to capture intimate moments on her cell-phone camera.
There is an accelerating relentlessness to Bong's story, a sense of cascading inevitability. The feelings the film inspires include dread and schadenfreude, as the mother slowly picks off the players who may have helped frame her son. Using music and crisp, unshowy editing, he builds to a climax that is both shattering and filled with deliciously acrid irony.
He also has a terrific performance at the center of the film, by Kim as the mother. She captures the sense of socially instilled humility, of a worker used to being at the bottom of the social heap, all but ignored or even disdained by her neighbors and the local officials. Yet there is a fierceness to her will, a refusal to give up on her son or allow him to be punished, simply because he is intellectually defenseless.
Mother is a sleeper, a film of deceptive power that sneaks up on you, building to a surprising climax.