Joon-Ho Bong is one of the most exciting and wonderful storytellers coming out of Asia today. With Mother, he joins with Chanwook Park as being one of THE young South Korean directors to see - by that I mean anything they put out. Bong's work is layered with the skill of comedy and drama, both often so dark and thick that you can put your hand in and not feel the bottom. His previous film The Host showed his talent at making a 'popular' entertainment, a monster blockbuster that actually gave characters to care about while action and terror ensued. But this time he returns to his second feature, Memories of Murder, in crafting a murder mystery that is ultimately, in the sense of the details of the story, hopeless, but carries so much joy and passion in its making that I left elated by the performances and cinematography.
It is, from the look of the premise, pretty simple stuff. A kid who is sort of 'simple' (not really retarded, just slower than the rest of the pack with a bad memory) is charged with a murder of a teenage girl found hanging over a rooftop. He says he didn't do it, or at least doesn't think he did, and his mother believes him. But finding out what happened won't be easy, and the police (as in Memories of Murder) just want the confession quick, which they get from Do-joon's misunderstanding, and move along to the next case. So, the Mother goes on a mystery, like a detective first tracking his shady golf-hustler friend, then going on to who this girl who died actually was, what her connections were, who, if anyone, saw what happened when her son stumbled home drunk that fateful night.
All of the details, seemingly straightforward. It's all in the presentation of the details, and it's this how Bong sets himself apart as an original: taking elements of film-noir and Greek tragedy, of a mother trying to save her son, and by proxy herself, and warding off the "chorus" of a strange and untrustworthy townsfolk who shun her after the incident. Oh, and like in other Bong films there's some touches of pitch black humor- watch for that interrogation scene of the teenage punk on the ferris wheel, or how that crazy hit-and-run happens at the start of the film- but it's either subtle or pronounced so large that one almost puts it down to hysterics. But while Bong navigates the black-comic elements well, it's his skill as a Hitchcock-cum-Chabrol idolizer that makes it a must-see.
This is suspenseful film-making, from the overall arc of finding out the details of the crime, to little moments that are just suffocating. Take when the Mother goes to search the complex lowlife Jin-Tae's place to find possible proof that he committed the murder. She has to hide in the closet when he comes in (Blue Velvet much?), and watch as Jin-Tae and his girlfriend have sex. Later, she has to exit ever so slightly, and knocks over a water bottle. Every second of this counts, and it's thanks to Bong's trust in the view to be lead along, and go for the tension, that makes it work.
Other things that make the film so exceptional are more technical, and emotional. The performances by Hye-ja Kim and Bin Won are moving for how they appear to be, then little by little how they show who they are, and more importantly what they're capable of. The final reel of the film shows the characters, and by proxy the actors, having to go through some rough motions, and a twist that makes Oldboy look, well, almost on-par in comparison. Kim is sensitive, tough, smart, but also knowing of this Mother's faults as a person, that she may have a little of the 'simple' side of her own son, and the secret her character carries, when reveals, is shocking. And Bin, playing a simple kid with some deep-rooted problems (and, of course, never call the character 'retard'), makes him human and relatable, or as Kirk Lazarus might put it "half-retard".
The cinematography, lastly, is a knockout. Scenes like the opening image of the Mother in a field doing an unlikely dance to the diegetic music, and then how the DoP manages between light and dark in those night scenes, or the subtle scenes like when the lawyer has the Mother at a drinking party that goes sour fast, are just beautiful and strange to look at. This may, too, be a credit to Bong as a director. Again, following along on his previous films, he grows as a patient storyteller, ready to let the details or action of a scene go slowly, but also ready to let the actors take things to BIG emotional plateaus. It should be noted that Mother does go into some melodramatic beats, sometimes very heavily, but it's never at a cheap shot or angle. Mother is a harrowing film that treats its characters seriously, but also gives time here and there to observe how awfully bizarre some of it is. It's one of the best of the year.