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‘Mother’ Features One of South Korea’s Most Compelling Antiheroes

Best South Korean Films: Joon-Ho Bong’s Mother

This article is part of our South Korean spotlight, highlighting some of the best films South Korea has to offer in light of Parasite’s historic Best Picture win at the 2020 Oscars.

Maternal pain is the driving force behind Korean wunderkind Joon-Ho Bong’s fourth feature, acting as the practically exclusive catalyst for a film that seems to delight in toying with audience expectations. Kim Hye-Ja, whose then thin resumé does nothing to foreshadow her towering work here, stars as the titular matriarch, whose life is defined by the well-being of her son Yoon (Bin Won), who is best described perhaps as “slow.” Following a dustup involving a damaged Benz, he goes on a lonely night out that ends with him leering at a local girl, who is found dead and bent over a rooftop railing the following morning. Picked up and immediately charged by lazy cops, Yoon is unable to recall anything useful about the evening’s events and is quickly pronounced guilty. Mother (who remains pointedly nameless) embarks on a vigilante crusade to clear his name – but don’t expect Hollywood theatrics or righteous justice. Instead, brace yourself for a long, cold dose of Bong’s merciless sense of dramatic irony.

Blending elements of the modern crime thriller (particularly Memento, along with Bong’s own Memories of Murder) with plot turns straight out of classic melodrama – I’m thinking of one ’30s chestnut in particular, but revealing it would spoil a major plot point – Mother is a strange and compelling film that stretches the bounds of audience sympathy, and manages to work equally well whether or not it is maintained for its entire running length. That’s partially accomplished by having the movie work not only as a morbid character study but also as a darkly funny mystery, one that gets by on oddball charm and oddly affecting asides (most notably a ghostly, cellphone-brightened appearance by the murdered girl) rather than any calculated shocks.

Of course, no amount of plot machination can render a movie successful on their own, and Bong seems to recognize that, as he allows Hye-Jun’s Mother to become South Korea’s most compelling antiheroes – not only does she appear in almost every frame, but it’s our own shifting perception of her quest to clear her son that provides the film with its most compelling material, and thankfully, Hye-Jun is up to the task, making her one of the genre’s most intriguing protagonists. Add to that Bong’s typically searing humor and some quietly devastating moments, and you have another addition to the growing list of great Korean thrillers.

  • Simon Howell
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Simon is a sometimes writer and podcaster living in Toronto.

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