Saturday, January 22, 2011

Mother (2009) Movie Review

It almost never fails to happen. One takes in a number of recent works by some of the industry's most overpaid to create some of the most lackluster works highlighting as quality, only to take shots at a viewer's pride and intelligence. Sometimes it's so much that the feeling of love one has for film \slowly comes into question. And no sooner into this almost spirit-breaking streak does this malaise experience a break. A light amidst darkness that reminds one of the promise of film, of the power such a medium can hold upon a viewer. The ability to enrapture and beguile in ways not unlike great music, poetry, painting, sculpture, etc. Sometimes all it takes is an unerring spirit, a vision, and sincerity to make a genre work shine amidst the pack. Which is why this reviewer feels more than overdue for a neuro-exam for not catching Bong Joon-ho's 2009 mystery piece, Mother sooner.

Going back to the territory of small town life in rural South Korea, Bong Joon-ho's film seems to be taking the public view of life he so beautifully captured in his 2003 breakthrough, Memories Of Murder, and weaves a tale that not only surpasses this film, but completes a vision of life that while familiar, is alien enough to encourage the most ardent filmgoer to dream harder when looking for material of this ilk, and thereby raising the bar for atmosphere, coupled with masterful storytelling.

A nameless widow & quiet small town herb-seller (Kim Hye-ja in a deeply affecting performance)is sucked into a world of danger after her mentally challenged son (the equally astonishing Won Bin) is accused of the murder of a teenage girl. Driven by seemingly harried/indifferent(okay,try incompetent) police, and even less concerned legal assistance, the mother begins her own investigation into proving the innocence of her son. And what unfolds is something that takes the best elements of a Miss Marple tale caught in a rapidly growing tire fire, while the ghost of Hitchcock doles out the gasoline. It is a uniquely spellbinding experience that works, simply due to all cylinders being well cleaned and prepared to race.

The script penned by Joon-ho & Park Eun-kyo not only has an ear for what makes a strong spin on the detective tale, but also of the lives of each character, making the tapestry of intrigue & deception so much more delicious. Especially when considering a small town so used to conviction based on hearsay. The world of our central character is inhabiting can only bolster her resolve, making each revelation seismic in potency. And this would not have worked without the ultimate ingredient, which is the array of performances on display Kim Hye-ja has been a mainstay of Korean television for decades, and shines in a startling shift in tone to her usual portrayals. It is clear that this character means so much to Joon-ho, and she drives the film with irresistible sensitivity, and power. We're in the pit, and sinking deeper with her, feeling the need to be vindicated along with her as the story unfolds, regardless of where the mystery deepens, which is often in some disturbingly unexpected ways. Which also leads to the impressive performance of Won Bin as the accused, his Do-joon is both worthy of irritation as well as sympathy, making it the perfect destabilizing factor as his memories of the night in question are foggy at best. It is in this relationship that Mother truly goes for broke as the world ever seems set against them.

Also worthy of note is Joon-ho's careful use of the entire visual palette, further expanding the seemingly desolate world he explored previously in an 80s period piece. This time around, the backgrounds are every bit a larger part of the film's emotional base, which gives South Korean small town life an at-times disparaging beauty that must remain seen in full scope to be appreciated. From landscapes of dilapidated homes, to busy downtown scenes, it is truly a wonder to drink it all in. And for a film that seemingly doesn't require digital effects, the need was likely there, but it isn't in any way noticeable. The collaboration here with cinematographer, Hong Kyeong-pyo must be noted as another star in the film as the town itself becomes a most important character.

And while it would do a disservice to dispel any further plot information, it must be stated that what occurs in the second hour can be compared to anything major to happen to the mystery/suspense genre as Joon-ho seems to have mastered the craft in only a few films. As his previous family in peril/political satire-cum kaijyu-tribute The Host(2005) can attest, he is a filmmaker of extreme sensitivity to family devotion, and difficult plot twits. And these powers are in complete control here as the revelations begin to amass towards an emotionally pulverizing climax on par with the greats. It is no exaggeration that Mr. Joon-ho is in fact a world-class filmmaker at the height of his abilities with Mother, and the cinema loving community should welcome him with ever greater embrace with this haunting jewel of a piece.

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