Mother is a brilliant crime drama that breaks all expectations of the genre. The fact that a senior citizen is doing the investigating is enough to make the film stand out. Kim Hye-Ja plays the titular Mother. Her adult son, Do-joon has major mental issues, specifically an inability to remember what happens in his day to day life. He is accused of, and confesses to, the brutal murder of a local high school student and is sent to jail to await sentencing. Mother knows that her son couldn’t hurt a fly and sets out to solve the case when everyone else abandons it. She breaks into houses, confiscates evidence, and tracks down potential witnesses however she can to free her son.
What makes Mother such a great film is how often the expectations of a crime film are flipped, distorted, and destroyed. For one thing, the entire film is a mirror image of itself. It doesn’t line up minute by minute, but it does constantly reflect itself. If Mother is chopping medicinal herbs in a shop during the first half of the film when Do-joon does something bad, she’ll be chopping herbs in the second half of the film when Do-joon does something good. From meeting witnesses and suspects to hunting down evidence by herself, every one of Mother’s actions in the first half of the film is met with an equal, but distorted, reaction in the second half. It is this constant balance by way of diffusion and reversal that makes the film rewarding even after all of the secrets are revealed.
The cast of the film is brilliant. Kim Hye-Ja makes only her third appearance in a feature film, but her skill as an actress in unquestionable. Director Bong Joon-ho convinced her to come out of retirement to take on the role. It is a good thing that she took the job. Not once did I question the believability of this elderly woman fighting for her son’s freedom, even when her actions were bizarre and illegal. Kim Hye-Ja commits to a smart portrayal of a passive, enterprising woman willing to do anything for justice. Her pleasant demeanor is never forced and it does wonders for the film as a whole. You don’t want Do-joon freed because he is innocent; you want him freed because it will make Mother happy.
As the murdered student Moon Ah-jeong, Mun Hee-ra balances the sadness of a girl forced to do horrible things for food and money with the sweetness and joy of a normal high school student. It is a particularly tricky role only afforded three scenes in flashbacks broken up by witnesses defaming her character even after her death. Her performance just adds to the growing tension of misplaced expectations in the film. In her best scene, a young man describes how she uses her cell phone in particularly nasty language in the present while Moon Ah-jeong is shown responding to his questions and comments in the past. It’s a wonderful marriage of clever editing and strong acting.
Then there’s Jin Ku as Do-joon’s best friend Jin-tae. His challenge is taking a flat “bad influence” character and spinning it through the midway-point scene that throws away everything you think you know about the film. Jin Ku’s arrogant and manipulative friend act is nothing compared to what he pulls off in that pivotal scene, which then pales in comparison to the hard-edged facilitator he becomes. It’s a great turn that makes the harshest moments of the film seem real.
If there is a flaw in the film, it is Do-joon himself. The screenplay does nothing to explain what is wrong with the young man. Though actor Won Bin does his best to sell the tricky character, there is nothing for him to grasp onto except artifice and stereotype. Had there been something–anything–to base his performance and our understanding of the character no (is he autistic? brain damaged? just slow? a victim of childhood trauma? developmentally delayed? schizophrenic?), the film would only have improved. We have to believe that Do-joon is so damaged he cannot understand what a confession is to set the plot in motion. Unfortunately, the only reason I believed it was the constant repetition of Mother saying that he did not know what he was doing when he confessed. Do-joon is clearly off, but he’s so nebulously defined as a character that I began to dread his appearances in the film.
The technical elements are flawless. From the score that builds the perfect level of suspense in each progressive scene of investigation to the costume design (Mother has, perhaps, three different outfits that she wears over and over–old suits with faded embroidery–that define her financial state, her age, and her beliefs about proper society), no artistic element is misplaced. Of particular note are the props in the film. Mother earns many favors with a faded antique acupuncture set that we never see her sterilize. Camera phones are used to explore the case and advance the plot in realistic ways; they are not magical devices that solve everything like in so many other crime dramas. If the photo processing store prints a picture from a cell phone, it looks like a picture from a cell phone. It is this level of attention that makes the constant shifts in narrative and character feel real.
Though the film is over two hours long, it never drags. It is carefully paced to meet and reject audience expectations in equal measure, creating a realistic rhythm. Real life doesn’t play out like a highlight reel and neither does this film. I believed everything about the timeline of the story because the film did not let me forget that, yes, Mother is walking everywhere or that it can take days, even weeks, before a court date arrives or a lawyer can began work on a case.
I cannot recommend watching Mother enough if you like anything at all about crime dramas. It is just so refreshing in form and realistic in presentation that I can’t imagine someone walking away truly disappointed by the film. You might be upset, sad, confused, or numb, but you probably won’t be disappointed.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.