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.