CANNES — Maternal instinct exerts fearsome force in “Mother,” when a woman finds that no one but herself can clear her son of murder. Bong Joon-ho’s top opus zooms in on one character with smothering intensity to examine the primal quality of motherhood. At the same time, it is a superb murder mystery, with twists coming thick and fast yet always at the right moments.
“Mother” confirms Bong’s prodigious talent in bending any genre to serve his own idiosyncratic vision. Though premiering in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, it would not feel out of place In Competition. Made with less commercial considerations than the monster movie “The Host,” his boxoffice smash in Korea, this more personal work may alienate some popular audiences, but critical accolades will give it a boost. Overseas marketing aiming beyond the art house may emphasize the script’s cleverly plotted detective yarn, which is paced like a Hitchcock suspense thriller.
Hye-ja (Kim Hye-ja) runs a herbal apothecary, and performs unlicensed acupuncture to make ends meet. She is constantly on the look out for her son Do-joon (Won Bin), who easily gets in trouble because of his mentally challenged condition. When high school girl Ah-jung is found dead and dangling halfway from a rooftop, incriminating evidence points to Do-joon as the killer.
Neither the district police whom Hye-ja routinely grovels to, nor the lawyer whom Hye-ja must pay through the nose for, show any sympathy or patience to Do-joon’s case. Frustrated, Hye-ja decides to find the killer herself. Her biggest suspect is Do-joon’s hoodlum buddy Jin-tae. However, she soon learns that there is no one she can trust in her close-knit village.
Although the small town setting and sex crime plot suggests Bong is revisiting his own “Memories of Murder” territory, “Mother” is less concerned with capturing the mindset of a milieu or community, or to criticize ineffective social systems than “Memories.” Bong is more fascinated with the glory and misery of Hye-ja — initially as an embodiment of the indomitable human spirit as she refuses to surrender to circumstances, then gradually as an elemental force of nature, as inhuman and destructive as the monster in “The Host” (which, incidentally, dwells in dark waters like a Grendel figure).
This is expressed with a stylized film language that he forges with more confidence than ever before. Looming close-ups of Hye-ja stretched across the screen both mesmerize and unnerve. Other times, wide shots of endless fields or misty mountains frame her as a speck in the landscape — implying both her insignificance, and her affiliation with nature.
TV actress Kim Hye-ja, long-accustomed to playing overbearing Korean mothers, commands the screen, though she sometimes goes overboard with too many mannerisms in a larger-than-life performance. Won Bin exudes guileless charm as the dim-witted son, and is almost unrecognizable from his usual heartthrob image.
The film’s use of sound, from the ominous rustling of leaves to the menacing sounds of Hye-ja’s herb chopper, is more effective than any music score. The appearance of not more than two persons in most frames, and the stark palette of primary colors of doleful smoky blue and petulant rusty red create a sustained mood of claustrophobia and discomfort.
Festival de Cannes — Un Certain Regard
Sales: CJ Entertainment
Production companies: Barunson, CJ Entertainment
Cast: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin
Director-screenwriter: Bong Joon-ho
Screenwriter: Park Eun-kyo
Producers: Seo Woo-sik, Park Tae-joon
Director of photography: Hong Kyung-pyo
Production designer: Ryu Seong-hie
Music: Lee Byeong-woo
Costume designer: Choi Se-yeon
No rating, 129 minutes