Magnolia Pictures // 2009 // 128 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // July 23rd, 2010
She'll stop at nothing.
Mother is Korean director Bong Joon-ho's fourth feature film, and with it he cements his reputation as one of the world's most impressive new talents. Coming on the heels of his eco-thriller / family drama The Host, Bong Joon-ho effectively continues to mix genres and confound expectations.
Respected Korean actress Kim Hye-ja stars as Mother, a woman whose reason for living is her 27 year old son, Yoon Do-joon (Bin Won). Yoon is "slow," and people should be careful if they refer to him as retarded; he lives at home and sleeps in the same bed with mother. Ill-tempered, often drunk and very forgetful, Yoon Do-joon follows a young girl through the streets after an especially nasty bender, but loses her in a dark alley. Cut to the next morning and that young girl is found dead in a very public and humiliating fashion. Unable to remember the events of the previous night, with evidence that clearly points to his involvement, Yoon is arrested by a police force eager to close the case. Saddled with an uncaring system, a corrupt defense attorney, and a confession by Joon, Mother takes it upon herself to find out the truth...and there is little she won't do.
Mother will be a frustrating film for some people; not because it is
poorly made or that it fails to engage/enrage its audience. Mother is
difficult because of what it doesn't do -- play by the rules we have come to
expect from these kinds of movies. Which isn't to say it doesn't play fair;
quite the opposite. Mother simply rewrites the rule book and demands it
be viewed within the context of its
carefully defined playground. To his supreme credit, like a good craftsman, director & co-writer Joon-ho lays everything out in plain sight for viewers careful to look for clues in the right places. Nothing is wasted in a Boon Joon-ho film and no detail should be considered insignificant. is one of those wonderful films where, just when you are certain you know how the movie is going to play out, it twists around on itself and goes to darker location. Once everything locks into place, its secrets finally revealed, the film almost demands the viewer start it over again for another viewing. Mother is a great big puzzle, but a very human and painful one.
Boon Joon-ho is a master magician, skilled in the art of misdirection, and with every film he becomes stronger at melding genres into something confounding and unique; a potent combination. Most people will be surprised by how funny Mother can be, even when what it's showing could be considered distasteful or warped behavior. Joon-ho uses humor in both subtle and broad fashion, to slowly spring his trap; once that trap is set, it isn't afraid to tear away at conventions leaving the viewer unbalanced and unsure of what exactly is going on. It's a thrilling high wire act and Joon-ho executes it with total confidence.
No one is an island and Joon-ho is helped along by the towering performance of Kim Hye-ja as Mother. Something of institution in South Korea, Mother was conceived and written with Ms. Kim in mind. In almost every scene, Kim's hands-on Mother is like Mama Rose Thompson, Jessica Fletcher, and Attila the Hun rolled into one determined package. Mother has a wide arsenal of button-pushing tools to chose from and she isn't afraid to call on them atone time or another, or all at once to achieve her goal. As a character, she is a force of nature who will not be pushed away or ignored. If there were any justice in the world, Hye-ja Kim would have her Oscar in hand. Her son Bin Won is good, but clearly not in the same league. His acting does not possess Kim's natural quality and, while the movie functions well when he is on-screen, his performance doesn't sing. None of this means he isn't effective, but from start to finish this is Kim's movie. It is worth mentioning that better support is offered by Ku Jin as Yoon's friend, Jin-tae. For everything that Yoon isn't, Jin-tae is and Jin plays it for all its worth within the confines of the movie. Smart, sexy, and manipulative -- to the point where Mother begins to suspect him capable of the murder -- Jin-tae may be the film's most complex character, someone from whose perspective they could have easily told an interesting story.
The cinematography by Kyung-Pyo Hong (The Brotherhood of War) is of equally high quality and beauty. A running aspect in Joon-ho's films, without exception, is the significant role environment plays. The land and city go a long way towards the creating the atmosphere of Mother and Magnolia's 2.35:1 1080p transfer does a great job of re-creating it for hi-def. Detail is sharp, while colors appear well saturated, if not overly so and the image offers up a pleasing amount of film grain. The transfer provides a strong bit rate that goes a long way towards offering up black levels that feature both great depth and clarity; one of the better transfers I've looked at, since jumping into the Blu-ray pond. The Korean DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track does an excellent job of creating a sound space that is both open and focused. Dialogue is easily discerned, sound effects are scattered around nicely, and the openness on the sound end does a great job with Byeong-woo Lee's beautifully evocative musical score. English subtitling is concise and clear, with little in the way of spelling or grammatical errors.
On the extras front, Magnolia Pictures saw fit to release a fully loaded special edition boasting nearly 2.5 hours of content, the star of which is a 90-minute Making of featurette. If you have watched Asian making-of features before, you know they can be rather dry affairs and this is really no different. There are details and background information to be had, but working through it can be a bit of a slog. For a film as wicked and subversive as Mother is, it would nice to have seen background information that reflected that but as is usually the case everyone is being far too respectful to everyone else for the feature to be engaging, let alone interesting. There are several other shorter featurettes that highlight Actress Kim Hye-ja, production design, supporting actors, cinematography, and musical score. It's great to have all that material, but there isn't anything there I'm in a hurry to return to. The one thing I'm left wanting is the commentary track recorded for the Korean release of this Blu-ray. It looks to be the only thing not carried over from that release, and I'm wondering why.
Memories of Murder and The Host combined for as strong a cinematic 1-2 punch as the world has seen in recent decades. With Mother, Boon Joon-ho follows that combination with an equally devastating body blow that exceeds expectations, cementing his status as one of the most important film directors working on the international stage. He really is that good and so is Mother.
Mother is guilty of something...probably several things...but I'm not
going to tell anyone what. All I'm going to do is ask the question, how far
would you go?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Korean)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R