Korean director Bong Joon-ho has an eye for tension, cramming edgy suspense and raw spirit into his pictures, but what takes his work a step beyond comes in his understanding of the pain within family and community. Memories of Murder finds footing with its gritty tone by enacting a nail-biter witch-hunt for a murderer in a small town, while the strongest moments in his Jaws-like picture The Host exist in the familial search for the lead character's daughter in the pit of a monster's lair. Mother, the director's latest mystery, tackles that paternal angle in a more direct manner, focusing on the lengths that a parent will go to preserve the innocence of their child. Much like his other pictures, Bong Joon-ho nimbly mixes eccentricity with suspense to soften its severity, yet the straightforward focus he's concocted here pins the picture's success on the performance of, naturally, the mother. Thankfully, he's found an exceptionally good one.
She, played by TV vet Kim Hye-ja, is a small-town mother who smothers her mentally challenged twenty-something son Do-joon (Won Bin), a stay-at-home boy who goes in and out of the local police station because of his scatterbrained activities. He's been manageable -- mounting debts aside that his mother pays off by way of her grain selling job and off-the-cuff acupuncture sessions -- until he gets wrapped up in a murder case involving a local schoolgirl, one where he's the prime suspect. As the police crowbar him in place as the murderer, with a signed affidavit to practically close the case, it's up to the boy's mother to discover the truth. She finds herself sneaking into houses, tromping into a victim's funeral, slinging herbal remedies as payment and navigating through the town's alleyways in search of answers, all with her eyes wide open as she sinks further away from her element. She may be sheepish, but she's also resilient.
Feeding off the same vein of tension as the veritable crime thriller Memories of Murder, Mother taps into a gripping authenticity that'd suggest something of a true story throughout its build-up -- even if it's an original work from Bong Joon-ho and two collaborators. As we follow the mother along her out-of-element sleuthing, rigidly jogging through alleyways and along dirt roads to the maximum of her age's capabilities, the film's composition grasps an earthy beauty that elegantly captures an electric tone. Amid her hunt, suggestive seeds are deliberately planted to steer us towards a viable conclusion, perhaps so well that the director has transformed a tried-and-true thriller into more of an effectual pins-'n-needles drama with anticipated twists and turns. This isn't so much a picture to watch for persistent revelations, but one to absorb for the realism in subtle thrills within a cramped societal cage.
While the director's other films are more driven by ensembles, this one finds a raw energy behind the thrust of one character -- this unnamed mother. A clever, fluidly moving script has been put into motion around her, but it'd be a different picture without Kim Hye-ja's nuance. She exacts precision within that naive resourcefulness we'd expect from a penniless, adoring woman looking to free the suspicion underneath her challenged son, tapping into darker recesses than most would expect of her. Most of her magnetism resides in her eyes, endlessly open as she delves deeper into the mystery, all while her shambling vocals ask piercing questions to her clueless child, his profiteering, slightly mean-spirited friend Jin-tae, and other potential "witnesses". What's more, our director also grasps her awkwardness in these situations, using Kim Hye-ja's genuineness as a springboard for wit where it normally wouldn't be found -- such as when she preserves a "murder weapon" from the rain as she walks to the police station. She's brilliant.
Once the film tosses the son into police custody, somewhat purposefully out of the way, and focuses on the mother's hunt for the truth, Mother finds its bearings as a whodunit that descends into the ugliness that can even cloud the likes of a small town. Thematically, much else isn't really said about the devotion of a parent to an endangered child, other than the lengths they'll go are boundless and, under the right circumstances, merciless; but the splintering sway of the humanity as it succumbs to opportunism, sexual deviance, and a disheartening veer towards inaction are chillingly observed here -- right before the mother's eyes. Yet, again, the way all the twists uncoil latches so firmly onto logic and elegant filmmaking that these simple aims are given gut-swelling weight, more for their realism than their novelty.
This becomes important in the third act, where everything snaps together into a blaze of revelations that impeccably ties to the film's well-sewn suspicions. Moral grayness and guilt become the facets that drive the final moments of Bong Joon-ho's picture, made powerful by all the elements -- especially Kim Hye-ja -- that wryly dragged us through a world of suspicion up until this point. He's an exceptional storyteller who knows the boundaries of our perception of both decency and empathy, and he plays to that awareness as the complication heightens. Mother is, in fact, a complex picture, predicated on manipulating our perception of the film's emotional texture instead of any sort of bends-around-the-corner suspense. And with its bizarre, effectual final moments, ones that finely wrap around to the odd beginnings of "Mother" dancing for us in a grassy field at the film's start, it justifies this intricacy.
Video and Audio:
Like most overseas films, this Blu-ray screening of Bong Joon-ho's Mother marks the first time I've seen the picture. Therefore, any correctness to the theatrical look cannot be discerned over this 2.35:1 1080p AVC encode, though it's obviously an elegant handling of Hong Kyung-po's cinematography. Fine detail during pulled-back shots in the city exhibit an exquisite grasp of minutiae, while exterior shots in the rain grapple the chilly palette with admirable strength. Conversely, interior shots within the police station offer quite a few moments where the crispness of the photography really pours through, while interior shots within either darker or warmly-colored confines stay steady. A few scenes grow a bit hazier than expected, but this effort from Magnolia is otherwise great in that regard.
Where some debate might arise is with the contrast. Most of Bong Joon-ho's films, also photographed by Hong Kyung-po, exhibit rich, stark black levels that balance with crisp higher-points into a stylish palette, as shown by the depth in both Memories of Murder and The Host. With Mother, however, the contrast leans far lighter than what I've experienced from the duo to this point, with blueish-gray black levels throughout. This, however, is intended to at least a moderate degree, as stated in the "Cinematography" featurette covered in the special features, as they wanted to attempt a bit more of a "realistic" look with new equipment. The overall balance approaches a much more even, monotone level, with softer bright points and lighter dark elements. This very well could be how the film's supposed to appear, but at times the black levels lean even grayer than those in the accompanying trailers and exhibit some ungainly noise in black levels. It's a very good high-definition experience, but still worth questioning for the palette.
Here's a surprise -- a pleasant one for foreign cinema purists like myself, but one that might detract some other audiences. This time around, Magnolia have neglected to include their usual English dub attached to their other foreign releases, allowing the Korean language track to stand on its own within a DTS HD Master Audio track. Much like Memories of Murder, this film swings on three direct sound elements: rainfall, musical scoring, and brusque back-and-forth dialogue. A few assorted sound effects also find their way into the mix, such as the rumble of billowing fire, the thud of a large rock on the ground, and a few mechanical clanks, but it mostly gravitates on subtle ambiance that richly pours through. Verbal clarity hits top and bottom shelves with aplomb, while the nerve-tingling rhythmic score keeps a steady keel throughout. Subtitles are available in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
Making of Mother (1:30:34, 4x3):
Stunning. This feature delves rather deep into the construction of the film, over an expansive hour-and-a-half stretch. It starts by showing Bong Joon-ho instructing Kim Hye-ja on how to do the dance in the wheat field at the beginning of the film, while interviews with the cast members backdrop the shot. The director talks about how he wanted to construct a film around his actress, not find the right actress for a particular story, then jolts directly into the behind-the-scenes shots. We get to see a wide breadth of Bong Joon-ho's directing method, with interviews involving the actors, his cinematographer, producers, and himself giving mostly family-centered dialogue. There are some real gems scattered throughout this consistently involving feature, candid shots on-stage with the actors and intelligent but accessible filmmaking bits, that make the time go by a lot quicker than many other assembly features lasting over an hour.
That piece would likely be enough to cover just most that we'd like to know about the film, but this Blu-ray isn't done there. Not by a long shot, actually; it also includes a series of featurettes that zone in on specific filmmaking elements, growing more technical and focused within each. Most of them last between 10-15 minutes in length, all presented in 4x3 shots like the large making-of piece, and flow at a nice intermixed rhythm of interviews and on-set/production footage. They include: Music Score (15:10), Supporting Actors (14:33), Cinematography (9:11) where Hong Kyung-po and Bong Joon-ho delve much deeper into aspect ratios and color approximation than expected, Production Design (11:47), A Look at Actress Kim Hye-ja (9:22), and Behind the Scenes (6:50). Rounding things out, two International Trailers (4x3, Letterbox) have been included, though neither are in high-definition. Note that all special features available here, which seems to be same as the Korean Blu-ray from earlier this year, contain English subtitles.
If you're a fan of Bong Joon-ho's previous work, then his like-minded film Mother shouldn't be a tough sell. It carries the same level of polish within his evocative, suspenseful, and at times humorous style, but this time it fits more snugly around one performance -- that of Kim Hye-ja as the nameless mother. He's one of the better contemporary directors to come out of South Korea's new wave of filmmaking, and this tale of paternal determination and protection adds yet another benchmark to his oeuvre. Magnolia's Blu-ray offers admirable audiovisual merits atop a slate of comprehensive special features, earning this disc a High Recommendation.