Opening sequences are tough to do well because they have to succeed at intriguing the viewer further while also presenting information in plot and tone. Mother delivers on both counts with a cute, old woman (Kim Hye-ja) dancing to non-diegetic Korean music in a remote field. She dances in fits and starts, oscillating between a look of close-eyed contentment and one of serious contemplation. All at once, we see an oddly humorous and visually stunning scene that cycles through several different emotions in the span of seconds. With the title overlay, Mother, the film manages to sum itself up right there.
Mother chops spices in the first narrative scene, while watching her mentally handicapped son, Do-joon (Won Bin), playing in the street. He gets hit by a car and in a flash, Mother rushes over to check on him, brushing off her almost severed finger to focus on her son, who only ends up with a couple of scratches. The opening scenes of Do-joon and his friend/bully, Jin-Tae (Jin Goo), exacting revenge on the people who hit him are largely irrelevant to the plot but set in play a pattern of self-destructive actions that becomes a motif of the film. Mother’s supreme focus is on Do-joon’s safety, which seems almost impossible when he always ends up on the cusp of danger.
After a night of drinking, Do-joon is arrested for allegedly murdering a high school girl, and Mother’s steadfast commitment to protecting him lurches in high gear. Director Bong Joon-ho works sneaks in gives even tangential characters dimension, but the leads, Mother and Do-joon, come through strongly in the subtlety of their action. Won-bin’s understated portrayal of Do-joon keeps his actions unpredictable, while never offering some sort of a caricature of someone with mental instability. For example Do-joon employs this trick called the “Temples of Doom” where he rubs his temples to help him remember, which ends up triggering a memory for the lawyer Mother has hired – not about the murder, but rather about a completely unrelated incident.
Films that have several tonal transitions have a tendency to come off as muddy and confusing, but director Bong Joon-Ho is a master of this technique. His prior film, The Host, succeeded with the same formula to become the highest-grossing South Korean film of all time. Black comedy drama thriller might be the best description, but distilling the film into that sort of characterization does it a disservice. At every turn the film defies conventions like Bo-joon’s crush on the bar owner’s daughter isn’t a meet cute – she’s a just a woman with her own trajectory.
Mother goes morally farther and farther afield in finding out the true killer to the point where she crashes the victim’s family’s mourning ceremony in order to plead her son’s case resulting in a heated exchange that ends in fisticuffs. She connects dots that are miles apart and in a funny scene questions school children on information about the victim. She walks the tenuous line of empathetic devotion to her son and going too far. Her sincere passion to protect her son makes us want to see to what extremes she will go.
Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo adds more depth to the already rather involved plot with symbolic shots of Mother dwarfed in the Korean landscape, and he turns a little tree propped by a wooden post on the side of the road into something inspirational. When Mother returns to the same remote Korean field in the latter half of the film, her dance takes on a completely different meaning. Ostensibly the payoff of the film should be the mystery, and the film succeeds on delivering a satisfying conclusion, but even if Mother doesn’t know it, she is the focal point.
New information comes to light that makes you reanalyze everything you’ve hitherto seen and old information is folded in, rewarding the viewer with a film that is far more than the sum of its disparate parts. As we see, Mother cannot be put into the standard old lady category and likewise this film cannot be put into a strict category either. The unpredictability of this film keeps viewers watching through some of the drawn out scenes, and offers a lesson to other films on what can be accomplished when genre ceases to be a constraint.