An engrossing portrait of a feisty Korean widow determined to prove her emotionally fragile son innocent of murder.
Asian movies with “mother” in the title often augur two hours of female fortitude, sibling devotion and saccharine. But Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother” is a mutha of a different kind — an engrossing portrait of a feisty Korean widow determined to prove her emotionally fragile son innocent of murder. Less visionary than Bong’s 2003 serial-killer mystery, “Memories of Murder,” but with the same skillfully natural evocation of a rural community hiding dark secrets, “Mother” will prove a tougher sell than Bong’s hit monster movie, “The Host,” but should get a warm embrace from upscale auds, despite having been unjustly denied a competition berth at Cannes.
For viewers in South Korea (where the pic opens May 28), one of the main attractions will be lead thesp Kim Hye-ja, totally unknown outside the country (except marginally for the 1999 mother-daughter pic “Mayonnaise”) but already a domestic legend for her maternal portraits over the past 30 years. Here, however, Bong subverts the 67-year-old thesp’s usual screen image with a role that’s wiry to the core; the character’s love for her son is shown to be non-negotiable and, on the outside, unsentimental.
Do-jun (Weon Bin) is a 27-year-old borderline simpleton who still lives with his long-widowed mother (Kim) in a small, unremarkable South Korean town. Much to his mom’s displeasure, his best friend is bad boy Jin-tae (Jin Gu), who ribs him about still being a virgin. When Do-jun narrowly escapes being mowed down in a hit-and-run accident, Jin-tae relishes the chance of a punch-up; he and Do-jun pursue the privileged perps to a golf club where they dispense street justice.
But soon Do-jun finds himself embroiled in harsher justice when he’s arrested for the brutal murder of a young girl. Though he has an alibi of sorts — getting drunk in a bar while waiting for Jin-tae to turn up — a golf ball with his name on it is found by the body. The confused Do-jun proves an easy target for the lazy local cops to conveniently extract a confession.
His mother, however, is convinced of her son’s innocence, and sets out as a one-woman task force to find out the truth. Initially, she focuses on Jin-tae’s apparent guilt, but the story is not so simple.
As in “Memories of Murder,” Bong economically steeps the viewer in the mindset of the rural community while retaining a slightly ironic distance and occasionally throwing curveballs. When the mother-with-a-mission strides through the landscape, a crazy brass-band march accompanies her on the soundtrack; physical violence has a habit of erupting unexpectedly; and when the story develops a sudden dramatic impetus, composer Lee Byeong-woo (“The Host”) cranks up the gently simmering atmosphere with genre-like music.
Key casting is aces, led by a deglammed Kim, forcefully low-key as the mother who seems capable of anything to protect her son; she also shows surprising physical strength when the occasion demands it. Weon, who began his career as a boyish-looking teen idol, is almost unrecognizable here as the complexly layered Do-jun, while Jin, so good as a psychotic killer in the recent “Truck,” brings a palpable physical intensity to Jin-tae.
Acute widescreen lensing by the versatile Hong Gyeong-pyo, better known for his work on visually flashier projects (“Il Mare,” “Taegukgi,” “Save the Green Planet!”), seamlessly knits together a large number of diverse locations into a single town.