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
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