I know what you’re thinking, and no, this isn’t a review of the 2017 Darren Aronofsky horror that split audiences, it’s a review of the 2009 South Korean film written and directed by the current talk of Hollywood; Bong Joon-ho.
Joon-ho has long been acclaimed in his home country, as much as it may surprise many people, there are many flourishing film industries outside of the Western world, and South Korea is no different; in fact, Joon-ho has been somewhat of a golden child of Korean cinema for nearly two decades, ever since his break-out film, 2003’s Memories of Murder, he’s been a solid fixture of Korean cinema.
I’m not going to sit here and try and make out like I’m some kind of fountain of Korean cinema (or any foreign cinema) knowledge. Like many people, my introduction to Bon Joon-ho came with Parasite earlier this year, all the rest I’ve found out through subsequent research after his awards sweep earlier in the year, I was keen to learn more, and more importantly watch more, of this auteurs works, and open myself to more foreign works in general.
Since then, I have watched and reviewed Train to Busan, another recent Korean success, and now I’ve taken my first look into Bong Joon-ho’s back catalogue, namely his 2009 crime thriller Mother.
In a small South Korean town, a widow lives with her intellectually challenged son, when a young woman is found murdered, suspicions immediately fall on the son, leading the mother on a quest to clear her son’s name.
People fresh out of Parasite might appreciate this film more than newcomers to Joon-ho’s work, as it shares a lot of similar DNA. A slowly building intrigue, and a sudden and unexpected twist that turns the narrative on its head both feature, as do portrayals of the social and economic class divide in Korean society, which may help endear the characters to Western audiences, as we realise that they aren’t as different as perhaps we first thought.
This was equally present in Parasite, the feeling that we’re being shown people’s way of life, as opposed to just introducing us to characters, it shows us the world which they occupy, which is an interesting watch as an outsider; maybe it isn’t something a Korean native would pick up on, as they’re used to it, but as a foreigner, seeing the cultural differences in how we live only immerses me more in the story.
So, with a world successfully created, Joon-ho then fills it with characters, all of which serve their own purposes, and are all infused with a very dark sense of humour and drama. There are certainly a lot of darker undertones lying beneath his works, sometimes played up for humour and at other times used to heighten dramatic impact.
There aren’t a lot of typically likeable characters in Mother, that I will say. There are characters you sympathise with, namely the titular Mother, and her son, but they are all also deeply flawed, or in some cases, just plain terrible people.
This gives us a wide range of character motivations and depth of personality. By not earmarking any character as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but showing us their different flaws, or ‘shades of grey’ as some might put it, you make them a lot more human and relatable, and thus make the story have more impact, as we recognise the shortfalls of human behaviour.
The story is also fairly involved, it twists and turns, staggering out its narrative revelations at just the right place to not lose its audience with too slow a pace, but without also giving the game away too early. Like Parasite (I promise I’m going to try and stop comparing them) it’s on a slow burn, not as slow, but just as engrossing, as the audience is led to believe one thing, only to have the rug pulled from under it two scenes later.
Its ultimate twist is also pretty much perfectly handled, in how it wrong-foots the audience into believing one thing when in actuality the opposite is true. In this case, the film openly feeds you the wrong information at first, under the pretence of the protagonist being unreliable, to make that final reveal all the more of a shock.
Of course, in cases like this, comparisons are always going to be made with the more seminal work, which is why I’ve brought up Parasite so much, it’s because this feels like a test of that formula, just with different plot points. They both left me with a feeling of satisfaction. Like no stone had been left unturned, and every part of the story linked up seamlessly, the work of a true master, I was especially impressed at how he made even something that seemed strange at the time link up to the final story, drawing parallels between the very first and last scene, in an effortless callback that made me feel satisfied for having watched through the narrative, it’s a strange one to explain, so it’s best to just watch the film to see what I mean.
Mother not only shares its writer/director with this year’s Best Picture winner but also its cinematographer, which explains a lot, as the camera-work is just as seamless as in Parasite, using a grimy aesthetic to portray life in a lower social class in much the same way, and with deliberate callbacks to previous scenes, the cinematography has to be pitch-perfect to achieve the desired effect, which it is, the camera is used in its full effect to show the juxtapositions of life in this town, from the tight, claustrophobic settings of the houses and shacks, to the lush, bright countryside that is occasionally visited.
The acting is also of a ridiculously high standard, with the stand-out being Kim Hye-ja, who plays the title character, she’s a potent mix of emotions, and can best be described as ‘desperate’. She’s desperate for her son, for him to have not done the crime in the first place, and for him to be released, she’s also financially desperate, seen as scraping together whatever she can to help clear her family’s name, there are also some extremely dark revelations about her past that reveal the true extent of her desperation, and all of the peaks and troughs of her character, grieving to vengeful, are carried off effortlessly by the actress portraying her.
By way of criticism, there is very little I can find wrong with the film from a functional level, on a matter of personal preference, I thought the use of the son’s intellectual disability could have been used more sensitively. I understand its use, and even some of the situations it might lead to, but some of its uses did make me feel very uncomfortable while watching, which I’m willing to put down to cultural differences, I don’t know how these things might be handled differently, but as far as things I didn’t like, that’s probably my main issue.
In summary, then, glimpses of everything Parasite would one day be have been evident in Bong Joon-ho’s work for a long time, and this shows that he is far more than a one-trick pony. I do hope he can continue to work in the spotlight, but still maintain his own control, as he seems to be unparalleled in modern cinema in terms of craftsmanship and storytelling, and this film has done nothing to dim my view of his work, in fact, it may have enhanced it even more. I wait with bated breath to see whatever his next project might be.