South Korea's Mother spawns suspense with satirical streaks

The Host filmmaker takes an unpredictable approach to an old-fashioned murder mystery

South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho takes unconventional looks at monsters and mothers alike. His international breakout hit The Host found B-movie thrills in a mutated amphibian running amok in Seoul. At the same time, it featured a pointed critique of the U.S. military presence in Korea, as well as the quirky dynamics of a dysfunctional family turned unlikely heroes.

Bong's new thriller, Mother, avoids such conspicuous weirdness, but still takes an unpredictable approach to an old-fashioned murder mystery. The audience never knows when Mother will make concessions to the formula, and when it'll deconstruct them. The unnamed title character (Korean TV actress Kim Hye-Ja) works as an acupuncturist in a small-town herb shop. She does her best to nurture her twentyish son Do-joon (Won Bin), a handsome but mentally disabled young man with short-term memory problems. Circumstantial evidence implicates Do-joon in a horrific crime. He lacks the mental wherewithal to assert his innocence or even provide an alibi.

His mother vainly tries to find someone willing to stick up for her son. Satire of the Korean criminal justice system occupies the margins of the film's first half. When the detectives arrest Do-joon, they speed off in a car and promptly have a spectacular accident – they can't even be trusted to drive a few blocks, let alone investigate a murder. The mother hires an indifferent, disrespectful attorney who drunkenly half-sings the details of a plea agreement in the back room of a karaoke bar. Mother tends to manipulate its audience with scenes of characters bullying the mentally disabled character. Nevertheless, Do-joon's relationship with his mother gradually proves more fraught and complex than simply a dutiful parent and an overgrown child.

Kim gives a tour de force performance as a humiliated woman gradually realizing that deference doesn't get her anywhere. She decides to investigate the crime herself. Mother becomes more compelling when she engages in amateur sleuthing along the lines of "Murder, She Wrote," and risks her safety to monitor suspects and seek clues such as a missing cell phone. Mother also builds to the kind of intriguing twists that make you re-evaluate earlier scenes.

Her son's arrest also forces the mother to examine herself and acknowledge some long-suppressed secrets. She realizes that, after decades of playing caregiver to her son and her acupuncture customers, she scarcely knows who she is anymore. The dreamlike opening scene signals the film's intentions as a character study: The mother's in a field, where she walks in isolation, then hauntingly dances to romantic music. Mother not only follows the title character's increasing desperation and ruthlessness in the name of protecting her son, but also her crisis of mid-life womanhood. That's a mystery that may have no solution.