Go long enough without seeing a good suspense film, and you start to forget how disorienting they can be. So many so-called thrillers settle for cheap scares and recycled red herrings that a movie like the Korean murder mystery Mother arrives as a shock to the system.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho, whose 2006 monster movie The Host is the highest-grossing Korean film of all time, Mother is anything but an obvious blockbuster follow-up. But it shares with The Host Bong's curiously layered vibe, a pervasive melancholy undercut by oddball humor and punctuated by moments of panic and violence. It is a strange and sad film that picks up momentum as it goes—its hairpin plot turns are surprising as they occur, but they seem coherent and even inevitable in retrospect.
The mother of the title is a middle-aged, working-class South Korean woman (Kim Hye-ja) who lives with and frets over her twentysomething son, Do-joon (Won Bin). Do-joon is mentally incapacitated, although the extent of his disabilities is murky; he has terrible memory lapses and remains in many ways childlike and socially awkward. His mother—tellingly identified in the credits only as Mother—is agonizingly protective of him, to the extent of keeping him in her own bed. She sees the world as one long series of threats to her vulnerable boy.
Her fears are realized when a local girl turns up dead, and circumstantial evidence leads to Do-joon's arrest and coerced confession. He can't remember exactly what happened that night, and neither the police nor defense attorneys are much interested in looking beyond the chief suspect. So it is up to Mother to prove her son's innocence.
Part of the pleasure of the movie is the determination and guile with which the post-menopausal protagonist pursues her sleuthing. Bong is having some fun with detective conventions, and the awareness of them that seeps into even a casual consumer of media like Mother. At the initial crime scene, two police officers trade quips about CSI, and Mother's investigation is informed by a layman's vague knowledge of forensics.
But Mother is not about its core crime, though it resolves the mystery in a detailed and satisfying way. It is really an ambivalent consideration of the responsibilities and perils of parenthood. Mother's devotion to Do-joon, like much else in the movie, turns out to be more complicated than it appears. And there is a great, anguished scene late in the story when Mother cries out for her own mother, which suggests how far back and how deeply her own troubles run.
Bong unspools the story with deliberate, nervy pacing, building tension as Mother chases one lead or another, casually planting clues that become important in unexpected ways. But he also makes room for a downbeat lyricism, which announces itself in the opening scene: Mother plods across an open field, looking dazed and bedraggled, and then at a certain point stops and slowly begins dancing to the lilting orchestral pop on the soundtrack. The scene is the film's first and last mystery; its meaning is not fully revealed until the closing moments of the story, when it takes on a significance that is both heartbreaking and chilling.
As sure as Bong's hand is, he is hugely helped by the performance of Kim Hye-ja, a 58-year-old television actress whose work has been little seen outside of South Korea. She makes vivid the pain and worry in Mother's drawn face, and also taps into steely reserves of strength and cunning. The role won her the Best Actress title at this year's Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong. (The movie also won Best Film, as The Host had before it.)
Her searching, disquieted eyes tell all the movie has to say about the sadness of life.