MOTHER
2009

Cinequest 20
South Korea
Korean
128 Minutes
Crime / Drama / Mystery / Thriller
Joon-ho Bong [The Host]

The closing night film of Cinequest 20, was a film by Joon-ho Bong, who also directed the much-better HOST in 2006.

This is basically the story of a mother’s loyalty to her mentally-retarded son. I’ve read a bit about this film and the phrases that continually come up are “challenged,” “simpleton,” and “slow” which I dismiss. The boy in this story is a barely functioning retarded youth who hangs out with a small-time criminal who uses him for whatever bad idea he can think up. I have seen hundreds of filmed portrayals of mentally challenged characters and few dramas have asked me to believe as ludicrous a character as Do-joon who stares at people with his mouth open and answers questions in slow motion. He forgets events and activities the second they are finished. But when he needs to be, he appears to add IQ points instantly. I almost couldn’t get past him. But Hye-ja Kim, who plays the mother, kept me at least partially entertained.

As did director Joon-ho Bong, who may have created a terrible, long, and frustrating mystery, but who can’t possibly be accused of not having the technical skill to pull of beautiful scene after beautiful scene. In one, a police interrogator karate kicks the apple out of the son’s mouth. This had nothing to do with any of the other 127 minutes, but it sure looked awesome! The opening scene showed Mother dancing, with abandon, in a field for reasons that we hope will be made clear by the end, but in actuality never are. But it was still hilarious, stunningly beautiful, and strangely emotional to watch this actress look at the camera and dance as if no one was watching.

The film is full of such moments. A building is engulfed in flames off in the distance as Mother walks through some woods. An incredibly tense scene follows a gratuitous sex scene (nothing wrong with that), in which a spilled bottle of water and it’s resulting puddle make you hold your breath as it spreads toward the dangling fingers of the bad guy.

Plot-wise, not much there. Mother runs a herbal store and moonlights as an illegal acupuncturist. She lives with her 20something son, who would forget to feed himself if she wasn’t around. Son is hit-and-runned by rich guys in a Mercedes. Boy and Thug drive out to the golf course to confront them and end up in the police station where Mother bails Son out and gives out free samples of some sort of herbal drink. Later, after a night of drinking, Boy is accuses of killing a loose schoolgirl and then displaying her for the neighborhood to see. Mother begins an investigation to find the real killer, going so far as to enlist bad guys to beat confessions out of people.

After all, her son couldn’t have possibly done what he’s been accused of, right?

And on and on. For more than two hours. Once the “mystery” has been solved, we are still subjected to another 20 minutes of slow-paced often inexplicable scenes which seem to have no connection with the original story.

I am a huge fan of Asian cinema. I enjoyed The Host and most of the creepy Korean horror films of the past decade. But this one just sucked. I don’t care if it’s from an established and much-heralded director, if this had been made in the US, no one would be giving it a second glance. Somehow it garnered an 8.1 at IMDB and a not-terrible 6.9 at Metacritic. There’s no accounting for taste.

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The Cinequest Program Said:

Some secrets can only be uncovered by a determined force of nature…

For twenty years Cinequest has empowered the Maverick via innovation and discovery. It fits this tradition to close a milestone program with a Maverick moment that will truly electrify…and give you one of those special moments when you leave the theatre knowing you’ve discovered something very original, very powerful.

There are many forces of nature. Perhaps the most organic and committed force is that of a mother for her child. And this power and experience of motherhood carries a universal understanding, respect and community. What would you do if your child were accused of a brutal crime?

Mother delivers a breathtaking and hugely entertaining mystery, delving into the realms of truth within the shadow side of humanity.

When it comes to her mentally challenged adult son, Do-Joon, there is nothing this middle-aged matriarch won’t do. Her devotion is put to the ultimate test when a schoolgirl is found murdered and all signs point to Do-Joon as the killer. Denied help by the authorities, she sets out to prove her son’s innocence. Using her amateur sleuthing skills, she uncovers a host of unpleasant secrets among the tormented townspeople. As the quest deepens, the heroine’s own maternal instincts become increasingly blurred.

Rather than stun with shocking sequences, director Joon-ho Bong (director of the hit film The Host) emphasizes and amazes with detailed cinematography. Shots of open fields and mystifying landscape are equally dazzling and fundamental to the mother’s journey. While her eternal love for Do-Joon may come across as shameful and outrageous, the powerful performance of the matriarch overshadows all else on screen.

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8.1 IMDB
6.9 Metacritic

MADEO

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Written by Michael W. Cummins