Forces of Nurture
South Korean director delivers a psychologically rich criminal thriller
Do-joon (Won Bin) isn't the brightest young man in town. Pretty to look at, but a little slow for a young man closer to 30 than his teens, Do-joon gets introduced in director Bong Joon-ho's Mother like a little kid. His mother (Kim Hye-ja) stares at him from inside the herb shop where she works; he's across the street trying to get a dog to sit up and wave to her. Suddenly, a black Mercedes speeds by, clipping and spinning Do-joon and sending his mother racing across the street to see if he's OK. He is, only a little banged up, and his friend Jin-tae (Ku Jin) gathers Do-joon up for retaliation. They find the car parked at a golf course, where Jin-tae kicks a rearview mirror off the car; Do-joon tries the same but only lands on his back. Their eventual confrontation with the car's wealthy drivers and passengers is a comically impotent brawl. Do-joon would rather be fishing golf balls out of the water hazard.
In this seemingly innocuous opening resides the complex relationships that power this drama. Do-joon will go along with Jin-tae, a man more prone to action, though less inclined to own up to it: When all are hauled in by police, Jin-tae blames Do-joon for the broken mirror and Do-joon, unable to recall exactly what happened, assumes he did it. Do-Joon's mother, though, will react powerfully and purposely whenever her son in endangered--and which he soon is, in a much more serious affair. Young high schooler Moon Ah-Jung (Na Mun-hee) is found bludgeoned to death atop a building--hung out like a piece of laundry, one character observes--and a drunk Do-joon was the last person seen with her alive. The police interrogate him, Do-joon gullibly signs a confession, and he's charged, even though local detective Je-mun (Yoon Jae-Moon) doesn't believe he committed the crime. Through all this, Do-joon's mother pleads with the cops, visits the young girl's funeral, suspects Jin-tae, hires a shifty lawyer, and eventually devotes herself to finding the real killer.
In but three previous directorial outings, director Bong has revealed himself a budding master of genre innovation. His 2000 debut Barking Dogs Never Bite subtly stirred an absurdist black comedy inside a drama about a man who takes an extreme response to the dogs in the housing complex where he lives. His 2003 follow-up Memories of Murder was even more savvy, a policier about the investigation of South Korea's first serial killer in the late 1980s. And in his 2006 The Host, he delivered a masterful interpretation of the creature feature. Monster movies typically function on a metaphorical level, where the creature is some manifestation of the repressed, a symbol of political or militaristic or cultural occupation, nature responding to the hubris of man's vain efforts to use science to master the known world, etc. The Host literalized all those ideas in its plot--and included a monster.
What Bong does with Mother, though, is far more subtle and, in many ways, more daring. Early on, Jin-tae wonders aloud about why Do-joon's mother--she's never given a proper name, instead referred to only by her biological and cultural role--is so attached to him. It's a question you begin to ask yourself, too, as she repeatedly pushes the limits of what she's willing to do to prove her son's innocence. It's a plot trope that at first feels very Hitchcockian, a wronged man fighting for his innocence, and for a bit Joon-ho pulls you into that sort of movie: first-person POV shots following a woman down alleyways, hiding in a closet during a search for incriminating evidence, paranoia plots that nobody--not even the police--can be trusted.
That narrative flow is a misdirecting current, though, and the fluid metaphor here is intentional. Liquids play key visual roles in Mother, whether it be the rain, medicine in a bottle, the blood on the bottom of a shoe, or, in a crippling poetry, puddles that patiently spread across the ground. Three times such pooling happens: A liquid makes its amoebic crawl across a surface and disinterestedly touches whatever's in its path. Mother's plot similarly expands at a patient swell, and by the time everything Joon-ho has up his sleeve gets wet, the movie lands an emotional hook to the jaw. When a final liquid pools on the ground, fluid dynamics becomes a visual expression of a relationship spread beyond its limits.
Mother opens in a positively baffling scene. Kim Hye-ja's character strolls onto a grassy field, trees and mountains in the distance, an inscrutable expression on her face. She begins to dance, though it doesn't clarify what sort of emotion the scene is supposed to convey, and the why of the scene feels elusive. By the movie's end you know every little one of the whys behind it. And thanks to Bong Joon-ho's immaculate construction, you're even less sure how you're supposed to feel.