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Pulling the Apron Strings

Mother (2009)

Magnolia Pictures

The intense and ultimately violent struggle one mother takes to keep her family together is at the heart of Bong Joon-ho's latest masterwork, "Mother." Wringing from the tale high melodrama, dark humor and taut suspense reminiscent of Hitchcock's best murder mysteries, Mr. Bong continues his trademark deft manipulation of multiple genres while narrowing his focus from vast national and societal issues to that of one woman on a mission.

The titular matriarch (Kim Hye-ja) assists in a small apothecary, performing unlicensed acupuncture for extra money. She dotes on her 27-year-old son, Do-joon (Won Bin), whose unspecified mental disability results in his childlike and frustratingly absentminded disposition. Under the influence of his thuggish friend Jin-tae (Jin Goo), Do-joon is known to the local police department for petty pranks; but the community is shocked when he is arrested for the murder of teenage girl Ah-jung (Moon Hee-ra). As evidence mounts against Do-joon, his mother must confront a sluggish police force, greedy lawyers and the well-kept sexual secrets and crimes of an entire community.

While shades of Do-joon's simpleminded character and the murder-mystery plot are found in Mr. Bong's earlier work "Memories of Murder" (2003), "Mother" concentrates on the inner transformation of the heroine. Well-known TV actress Ms. Kim depicts an evolving maternal instinct ranging from the familiar Korean image of mother as sacrificial nurturer to that of a devouring and destructive protective force worthy of long-feared primordial goddesses. As Do-joon, Mr. Won's boyish attractiveness and history of playing dutiful sons provide a foil for Ms. Kim's weighty presence: Where she is active, he is inert; where he is naively placid and forgetful, she is in constant turmoil, heavy with past regrets.

Aesthetically, "Mother" is a beautifully realized film juxtaposing the cluttered dinginess of the city with sprawling landscapes and sunlit fields in long shots. But the long shot, tonally speaking, is "Mother's" one flaw. Somehow in its juggling of pathos and dark humor at times bordering on irreverence, the first half of the film suffers in that it merely observes its characters from a critical distance instead of engaging with them. The stylistic perfection and attention to generic details — such as the score, unavoidably evocative of Hitchcock-Herrmann suspense collaborations, as well as other gestures to melodrama — occasionally feel contrived and detract from the gravity of the narrative. Ultimately, aided by Ms. Kim's epic performance, Bong manages to bring this tonal unwieldiness back under his formidable control for "Mother's" moving and powerful final act.


Opens on March 12 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Park Eun-kyo and Mr. Bong, based on a story by Mr. Bong; director of photography, Hong Kyung-pyo; edited by Moon Sae-kyoung; music by Lee Byeong-woo; production designer, Ryu Seong-hie; costumes by Choi Se-yeon; martial arts by Jung Doo-hong and Heo Myeong-haeng; produced by Moon Yang-kwon, Seo Woo-sik and Park Tae-joon; released by Magnolia Pictures (United States). In Korean, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes. This film is rated R M.P.A.A.

WITH: Kim Hye-ja (Mother), Won Bin (Yoon Do-joon), Jin Goo (Jin-tae), Yoon Jae-moon (Je-mun), Jun Mi-sun (Mi-sun), Song Sae-beauk (Sepaktakraw Detective) and Moon Hee-ra (Moon Ah-jung).


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