Tuesday, March 02, 2010


I was going to start this entry with a picture of Bong Joon-ho at the HFA, but as much as I love my current phone, apparently the camera is a little wanting when you try to take a picture of a guy wearing a black suit against a black background across the room in less than ideal lighting conditions (the big ol' head between me and him barely entered into it). It just re-enforces the idea that if I ever actually get a new dedicated digital camera, it will be one with decent optical zoom.

Sunday night was a cool evening at the Harvard Film Archive with Director Bong presenting his new film, Mother. It's kind of surprising to see that he's only done four features and parts of two anthologies; though I haven't yet seen his first, Barking Dogs Never Bite (it's hard to find in the US, but will be playing the HFA this coming Saturday, 6 March 2010), his second, Memories of Murder, was such an assured, taut thriller with plenty to say beyond a simple murder mystery, and he's maintained that level of quality since. In person, he gives the impression of being a genial, funny guy - the folks who spoke Korean tended to laugh at his jokes, and they survived translation. He was also very generous with his time, sticking around for an hour of Q&A after the end of the film, and a reception after that.

He was also what seemed unusually open, at least in my experience, in talking about the construction of the film. Sure, some funny stuff, like how although Kim Hye-ja is a revered actress in Japan, often considered the very image of a mother-figure, she struck him as kind of being psycho, which was part of the motivation behind the movie. He also broke down how water in the film frequently corresponded to sex, and what this meant for each of the characters. Maybe I'm just going to the wrong ones, but I seldom recall filmmakers being willing to do such detailed dissections of their films during the discussions; usually they're content to just nod at the people who spoke up to hear themselves talk or give vague, noncommittal answers.

I can't say much more without spoiling the film, and I don't want to do that. Mother officially opens in the U.S. on 12 March 2010, although it may be a week or three later in the Boston area (it's not on Landmark's list of films opening on 19 March). I recommend it, and Bong's other films.

Mother (Maedo)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 February 2010 at the Harvard Film Archive (Bong Joon-ho: The Pleasures and Terrors of Genre)

Bong Joon-ho's last film, The Host, was a great big special effects extravaganza that set the record for ticket sales in South Korea. In many cases, one would expect a director to try and top that in his next outing; instead, Bong stepped back and made another more intimate film about murder in a small town, one which will remind audiences of his Memories of Murder, both by its subject (a murder in a small town) and its quality (very good indeed).

Before the crime takes place, we meet the accused killer and the amateur detective. Yoon Do-Joon (Won Bin) is good-looking, but mentally handicapped; he can't remember things from one minute to the next. His mother Yoon Hye-ja (Kim Hye-ja) is extremely protective. When schoolgirl Moon Ah-jeong (Moon Hee-ra) is found beaten to death with a golf ball that Do-joon had been seen doodling on earlier near the body, local cop Je-mun (Yoon Je-moon) picks him up, and his partner quickly scares a confession out of the easily confused Do-joon. His mother isn't quite so convinced, and starts investigating on her own, starting with her son's friend Jin-tae (Jin Goo), who knew about the golf balls and was supposed to be with Do-joon on the night in question.

Kim Hye-ja is a veteran actress, though little known in the west, even by fans of Korean film, because most of her work has been in television. I gather that she has played a lot of mothers in that medium, but I'd be impressed if any of them are quite as memorable as this one. It takes just a few wordless moments to get a handle on her character: When we first see her, she's slicing herbs at work, but distractedly, always looking out the window at Do-joon, with affection but also a great deal of worry, and no small amount of weariness; she's had to be much more worried for much longer than most parents. The true brilliance of her performance, though, is not how immediately we recognize and understand the character; it's how, as Hye-ja grows more desperate and frantic and we learn more about her, we seldom have moments where we shout out "aha, this explains that!" Kim's performance is so perfectly formed that everything fits together without individual bits needing explanation, even as she gets more complicated.

And she does, even as the murder mystery deepens. Bong and his co-writer Park Eun-kyo build a story that splits time between Hye-ja's investigation and her relationship with her son without creating connections that feel coincidental. It's an impressive balancing act; character-oriented mysteries are some of the toughest things to write well. They do everything right, though - the solution to the mystery is built from clues hidden in plain sight, and the solving of it tells us interesting things about Hye-ja without it necessarily being an obvious parallel to the case. Both threads converge as the story moves to its conclusion without either diminishing in importance, creating a story that is both about Hye-ja specifically and makes a larger point about alienation and loneliness.

The movie's not just about Hye-ja, of course, although she's clearly the central character. Big praise must also go to Won Bin, as Do-joon is an extremely tricky character. He's slow, but can't be obviously simple from a glance, and "slow" can't be his entire personality. He's unhealthily dependent on Hye-ja, but also feels smothered by her; he can be funny but also angry. He's a character, not just a disability.

The rest are impressive, too. Jin Goo handles the part of Jin-tae with aplomb, playing a character who starts off as a sort of facilitator of comic relief, which morphs into something a bit more sinister. Yoon Je-moon is sympathetic as the small-town cop both a little in over his head but familiar with the Yoons. Moon Hee-ra and Lee Mi-do are also good as the high-school girls involved with the case - Moon as the victim, Lee as a possible lead.

It's a small cast, in what's a relatively small-scale story, especially relative to the monster hit that Bong had come off. But dismiss it at your peril; as mechanically meticulous as the construction of a special-effects piece like The Host is, so is everything about Mother, and it's engrossing for it.

Also at eFilmCritic

No comments: