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South Korea 2009

Thriller, Drama

Bong Joon-ho

Kim Hye-ja
Won Bin
Jin Ku
Yoon Je-moon
Jeon Mi-seon
Yeo Moo-yeong
Kim Jin-Goo
Cheon Woo-hee
Lee Yeong-seok

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Story: Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin) is a mentally retarded boy, who often spends his time with his buddy Jin-tae (Jin Ku), a money-obsessed wannabe-thug. Do-joons mother (Kim Hye-ja) takes care of her son in a self-sacrificially and overprotective manner, but even though she seldom loses sight of him, Do-joon one day is accused of having committed a crime. The police arrests him because of the murder of a female student that has taken place in the small provincial town. The only proof for Do-joon being the murder, but for the investigating officers sound one, is a golfball with his name on it that has been found next to the victim. The mentally handycapped boy signs a written confession and is now being imprisoned. However, his mother can't believe that her son can harm anyone and so she takes business into her own hands, trying to uncover the motive behind the murder. But despite new evidence she hands over to the police and her lawyer no one seems to want to review the case. Do-joon's mother doesn't give up, though, until she has uncovered the whole truth...

Review: "Mother" is without a doubt a gripping and atmospheric thriller that can captivate the viewer for two hours straight. However, after the many laudatory voices of some critics I expected a little bit more. Moreover, if you consider that I completely missed that "Mother" is from no one else but Bong Joon-ho who delivered two great movies with "Memories of Murder" and "The Host" you can imagine that my disappointment could have been a lot bigger had I known that. Anyway, I don't want to give a false impression, because you really can see that the film was made by a director with talent and experience. Bong knows how to create tension even in the smallest of scenes and how to carry the audience away with little stories and make them cheer for the characters, too. Not to a small degree this is also thanks to the fantastic actors/actresses.

After Bong's "The Host", Korea's highest-grossing movie of all time, the director doesn't want to top his success but instead approaches his new work in a more tranquil way. A wise choice, which earns him the uttermost respect, at least from me. Therefore, "Mother" is more personal and subtle. Nevertheless, what deserves some criticism is the fact that he actually picks up certain motives and story threads we are already familiar with from his previous movies and recycles them. The story around a provincial town in which a murder of a female student takes place naturally strongly reminds us of "Memories of Murder". The same goes for the police and the way they investigate the case. It seems as if Bong doesn't think much of Korean police, because once again he portrays most of them like country bumpkins, totally overstrained by the case and not being able to recognize important clues even if they are handed to them on a silver platter.

Then there is of course Do-joon, a slightly mentally retarded boy. The sort of character the director seemingly likes to reuse. If Song Kang-ho hadn't been to old for the role he would have gotten it for sure. The motive of a family, in this case the mother, willing to do anything for its relatives is also familiar, see "The Host". Yet, this time Bong explores the material within a more quiet and intimate framework, even though he doesn't do so more profoundly. His thriller has certain obvious aspects of a melodrama and it's only thanks to his skillful directing that the story still remains a thriller in its core, in which the emotional scenes luckily aren't used in an excessive manner. Kim Hye-ja, who has proven her talent in numerous TV-productions, represents a refreshingly different eponymous heroine, brings emotions to the screen, but fortunately does so in a surprisingly subtle fashion, so that we are spared from unnecessary tears from a mother who desperately tries to save the life of her child.

Won Bin is a name that should sound familiar since "Taegukgi" (aka "Brotherhood") and he actually manages to give his character its very own facets, so that he doesn't degenerate into a cliché of a retarded moron. The actual acting surprise, though, is Jin Ku ("A Dirty Carnival", "Love Me Not"), who embodies a small-time crook, as far as you can call someone who is living in a suburban city like that, and who always maintains an aura of deviousness, yet is somewhat charismatic. Hopefully, we will get to see more from him in the future!
Director Bong more than anything else manages to create a tense atmosphere because of the very good use of the actors, which is why you are instantly dragged into the story. The beginning might be a bit slow-paced and the ending also might be unsatisfying, but apart from that the movie is extremely thrilling. The mother naturally has her own way of collecting evidence and clues, however, in most cases these clues end up in her hands in a pretty forced way as it has to be criticized. Nonetheless, the plot unfolds in a pleasently steady way and offers enough twists to maintain the thrill-factor at any time.

Bong's expertise can mostly be found in his wonderfully composed camera work. Furthermore, he knows how to utilize twists, emotions and music in the most powerful way possible which is why there will sometimes be send cold shivers up and down the viewer's spine. A good thriller should be able to give the audience the creeps with its atmosphere and that's exactly what "Mother" does. Moreover, the director deserves some words of praise for the fact that he doesn't present a simple picture of good and evil, but instead allows the viewer to decide for himself which actions are morally justifiable and which aren't. Every now and then there are some unexpected moments of black humor, similar to those in Bong's "Barking Dogs Never Bite", and even though they sometimes might be rather alienating for the viewer, they manage to arouse some laughter for good measure.
In the end, "Mother" doesn't live up to the good reputation it has as there is only few that can be called new from Bong. His movie magic sadly is only senseable to a limited extent and his story as well as the elaboration of it seems to have been done sloppily. However, even if this means that "Mother" is one of the more inferior films of Bong, it is still enough to deserve a clear recommendation for thriller fans!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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