Korean film-making has been a hotbed for interesting horror films, but none had the instantaneous impact of Joon-ho Bong’s The Host. Making Cloverfield look like a Mystery Science Theater punching bag waiting to happen, the director settled in to make a disturbing murder mystery in the vein of Hitchcock with Mother (Madeo). The titular character sets out to prove the innocence of her only son, the mentally simple Yoon Do-joon, after the authorities have locked him away after coercing a confession out of him. Do-joon’s mother wanders the countryside, seeking answers wherever she can find them, begging on her hands and knees, sacrificing any length to free her darling boy. The complexity of the story is phenomenal — even elements that seem cookie-cutter are given extra depth and luridness. Instead of relying on some sort of clever twist or flaring showdown, the film quietly plods along to its conclusion. That might be my only complaint; the film feels overlong with its meandering telling. Otherwise, it’s a terrific detective story told with an added element of unnerving creepiness.
Do-joon (Bin Won) is doted on by his mother (Hye-ja Kim) with the kind of intensity one would expect from a movie called Mother. We’ve been trained to expect the suffocation, the implied Jocastan canoodling, the arrested development forever — as well as a ferocious protectiveness that hasn’t been seen since Mrs. Voorhees started cutting up campers. His mother is so fervent; she’s never even given her own identity, but simply referred to as The Mother. But Do-joon is the best kind of simpleton — like Lenny, he fights back with a vengeance. He’s a moody adolescent prone to violent attacks when he’s called retard. The film opens with Do-joon getting struck by a car full of wealthy professors. Do-joon’s mother is so horrified, she accidentally slices off the tip of her finger on her herb-blade, rushing out to her boy. Do-joon and his ne’er-do-well best friend Jin-tae (Ka Jin) hop in a taxi and hunt the golf course for the attackers. Jin-tae vandalizes their car by kicking off a side mirror, which Do-joon tries to duplicate, but falls on his ass. We see him later wading around infant-like in the pond, scooping up golf balls to give to a girl. The boys track down the professors and a skirmish ensues, which leads to police involvement. The boys were hit by their car, the professors weren’t even scratched in the assault, but they report the damage to the side mirror, which Jin-tae pins on Do-joon who confesses immediately, because of his bad memory. When one of the professors insults Do-joon, he springs across the desk to beat him. This is a precursor of things to come.
Drunk and ditched by his friend, Do-joon follows a schoolgirl home, but she disappears into a dark alley, and Do-joon wanders home. The next day, the girl, Ah-jung (Mun-hee Wa) is found draped over a rooftop with her head bashed in and one of Do-joon’s golf balls next to her head. The police immediately arrest the boy and get him to confess. The rest of the film follows Do-joon’s mother in her attempts to free her son, as she conducts her own investigation. Bong is deft at letting his female lead follow avenues of investigation to jarring dead ends. The story is layered so densely with red herrings and ulterior motives, but never once does it feel like a cheat or gimmick. There’s a wonderful, almost casual cruelty afoot, an element of sinister graphic-ness that makes the story that much more effective. It’s like the updated noirs splashed with buckets of blood, only done skillfully without being gratuitous. The lackadaisical pacing doesn’t really allow for incredible amounts of tension, but rather emulates the experience of watching a toddler poking a mousetrap. The trap snaps, and we see the finger break, the blood squirt, the digit snap, and the ensuing scream startles the mother chopping vegetables in the kitchen so she nicks an artery. In her efforts to rescue her child, we can’t be sure who’s hurt worse or whose blood is whose.
Marked with outstanding performances and a brilliant script from Joon-ho Bong and Eun-kyo Park, Mother doesn’t try to ease under your skin with creepiness like some devil insect, but rather strikes repeatedly at you like a poisonous serpent. It’s a powerfully well-put together story that’s sure to be ill-adapted by some American studio in the coming year or two. Though I’m apparently the only person who didn’t go ape-shit over The Host — which I still thought was a terrific film — Mother impressed me with its unflinching story. While another director might not have had the instinct to balance savage violence with a quiet narrative — though this does seem to be a hallmark of Asian horror — Joon-ho Bong works with a careful hand in blending the narrative. The result is a Hitchcockian plotting with modern day gruesomeness and an outstanding example of how mystery should be played.