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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

MOTHER -- DVD review by porfle

Korean director Bong Joon-ho's MOTHER (2009) begins with Hye-ja Kim's title character standing out in a field, doing what I call a "sad dance."  Her movements are festive and celebratory--albeit in an empty, mechanical way--while her expression is anything but.  After watching her scintillating story you'll understand how she ends up in such emotional conflict.

Mother runs a modest herb shop and practices accupuncture without a license while caring for her teenaged son Do-joon (Bin Won).  He's several bricks short of a load, but he's a good-natured, childlike boy (he still sleeps with her) who generally means well.  Do-joon's best friend is a delinquent named Jin-tae (Goo Jin) who's sometimes a bad influence on him, although he does watch over the simpleminded boy like a big brother.  When Do-joon is accused of murdering a schoolgirl in what appears to be an open-and-shut case, Mother and Jin-tae form an unlikely alliance in order to prove his innocence.

I was afraid this was going to turn out to be one of those stories in which an eccentric old lady turns out to be a crackerjack detective, showing up the pros with her sharp wit, quirky methods, and old-fashioned common sense--sort of like what might happen if Miss Marple were Korean and had a son in prison for murder.  In fact, Mother turns out to be simply a desperate woman flailing around in the darkness, hoping to stumble across anything that might help her son. 

When she does begin to pick up a few threads that might lead to an elusive clue, she's believably tenacious, resourceful, and brave.  When necessary, she becomes ruthless.  Still, she's a hopeless novice and most of her efforts, including hiring a slick, narcissistic lawyer, are in vain as she sacrifices her dignity and self-respect--ingratiating, imploring, demeaning herself, throwing herself on the mercy of anyone who'll help.

Just when things seem their bleakest, Mother gains an unlikely ally--Jin-tae, whose cunning and strong-arm tactics lead her and us into one of the most gripping sequences in the film when they question a couple of potential witnesses in an empty amusement park.  This yields an important lead regarding the murdered girl, which sets the final series of events into motion.

Through it all, Mother's victories are small, mostly hollow, and ultimately futile.  She struggles to keep her civilized veneer as she withers inside with each setback, until finally, in sheer desperation, she's reduced to an act that jolts the viewer's expectations almost as much as the shower scene in PSYCHO. 

Slow-paced and involving, MOTHER is quite a rewarding experience for those who occasionally prefer subtlety and depth over constant action and sensation.  Thoughtful and rewarding, the film also has a nice visual style which is enhanced by a number of beautiful, evocative shots.  The cast is very good, with Goo Jin an enigmatic Jin-tae, Bin Won wonderfully childlike and naive as Do-joon, and Hye-ja Kim absolutely brilliant as Mother.  Her performance is both inspiring and heartrending, effortlessly carrying the film ever higher with each scene.

The DVD from Magnolia is 2.35:1 widescreen with a Korean 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.  Subtitles are in English and Spanish.  Extras consist of five informative featurettes focusing on "making of", production design, supporting actors, cinematography, and the excellent musical score by Lee Byeong-woo.

With MOTHER, Bong Joon-ho applies his knack for deadpan humor to some deadpan irony, the bitterness of which doesn't keep it from being pretty delicious as well.  In the end, we understand the sad dance, and why Mother's movements are celebratory but her expression is desolate.

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