If you’ve seen Joon-ho Bong’s strange and wildly entertaining movie The Host (2006) (and you should), you’ll be a little surprised at what the director has done with his latest film Mother. There are still traces of the goofy wit, the slapstick, and Bong’s great talent for creating suspense. But Mother is a much more cinematically expansive film, psychologically intense and visually stunning. What made The Host so good was Bong’s ability to insert vivid, dimensional characters into his monster movie about a giant worm, the by-product of negligently disposed-of chemical waste, which jumps from the river and terrorizes humans. What makes Mother first-class is that he creates monsters out of the kinds of people who live all around us.
The film focuses on the relationship between a poor single mother (Hye-ja Kim) (A widow? A divorcee? Abandoned? We never know.) and her dimwitted son, Yoon Do-joon (Bin Won). Their relationship is intense and strange: she is an exaggeration of the obsessive mother-type who clings and smothers her son, and he is caught between reliance and repulsion. She coddles him, babies him, and gets him out jams, like when he is arrested for attacking a golf cart full of wealthy men with his friend, Goo Jin, as revenge for nearly hitting him on the street in their Mercedes. There is also an uncomfortable sexual tension between mother and son, so when Do-Joon tells Goo Jin he sleeps with is mother, we’re not sure whether or not to believe the simpleton.
Mother and son are eventually ripped apart when Do-joon is arrested for murdering a young girl. The mother swears he is innocent, and we believe her because Bong has shown us the scene where Do-joon drunkenly follows the young girl up a hill on the outskirts of their small town late one night, only to be chased away when an unseen person throws a rock at him from within the abandoned house the girl has entered. Who would frame such an innocent, simple-minded young man? The wealthy golfers? Goo Jin, covering his own violent excesses? The Mother turns into a private investigator, following these leads and discovering in the process that the murdered girl came from a very poor family, and she used to trade sex for rice with dozens of men in the village. She kept images of these men – mostly high school boys – on her cell phone, and the Mother believes if she can find the phone, she will find an image of the girl’s killer.
From the start, Mother feels weird and off-beat, with something recognizably Asian in its wit, violence, and its knack for framing uncomfortable situations. As the story progresses, it looses its innocence and we are drawn into a diabolical thriller that becomes darker and more terrifying with each scene. There is a late scene where my reaction reminded me of what it was like to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for the first time: that sense of fear and shock that is intensified by the unexpected eruption of violence from the depths of otherwise normal characters. Mother feels like a cross between Hitchcock and Pedro Almodóvar, a strangely sexual thriller that reeks of incest and convinces you of something Oedipal about mother-son relationships. In the end these themes emerge as more frightening than the details of the murder-mystery plot. Like Hitchcock, the fear comes from the director’s ability to turn the tables on his audience and make us suspect something murderous in the person sitting next to us – and ourselves.