(Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2009)


One of the more beguiling ideas to emerge in recent film criticism is the notion of the anamorphic fold: whatever banal thing happens in the opening moments of a movie will be, by the ending, ingeniously unfolded, opened out in all its dark, hidden aspects. It can be a wonderful storytelling device. And it describes exactly what happens in Bong Joon-ho’s superbly constructed Mother.


The very beginning of this film, its pre-credit sequence, is highly mysterious. What is that maddening pop Muzak, and who is that not-young-looking woman (Kim Hye-ja) swaying, a little idiotically, in a field? And why – as the title superimposes itself on the screen – is this woman now looking out at us, her hand cupped near her heart? What deranged sentimentality is being offered to us?


It takes around 130 absolutely breathtaking minutes for answers to those seemingly mundane questions to finally arrive – and when they do, they are no longer so sentimental. These answers involve the failure of a quest, an acupuncture needle, a self-stabbing, and a withdrawal from an impossibly tragic reality by the woman in question – and what a question she is! This unnamed widow is, in fact, among the most remarkable characters in modern cinema.


Bong, although regularly feted on the Festival circuit and blessed with some commercial success in his home country of Korea (especially for this wonderful political monster film The Host, 2006), remains an underrated director. Once again, in Mother, he deftly interleaves various genres: a weird kind of investigative thriller, often tending to the comically surreal, morphs into a true woman’s melodrama that can stand comparison with Max Ophüls’ The Reckless Moment (1949) – in no small part due to Kim’s magnetic performance as a mother doing every crazy, dangerous thing she has to do to clear her disabled son of a murder rap.


There will be many twists and surprises in this story. Bong does not neglect his trademark touch: a particularly off-beat, surreal sense of humour, expressing itself in a cartoonish ballet of bodies jumping, falling, fainting and crashing into each other – as they have often done since his feature debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000).


Although the work with colour cinematography (by Hong Kyung-pyo) is perfect, Bong was not satisfied, finally, that he had extracted all the potential richness from this material – so he re-graded it in a surprising, black and white version (2013). In whichever tonality, the brilliant mix of melancholia and outrageousness in Mother suggests, uncannily, a remake of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), in its unseen, complete, original version (whose disassembled pieces can be consulted on the Masters of Cinema 2017 Blu-ray release).


Bong as the new Wilder? Crossed with a bit of Brian De Palma? Not a bad way to go in the 21st century.

© Adrian Martin December 2009 / July 2015

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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