Movie Review: Mother- A Unique and Complex Thriller Proving That a Focus on Character and Plot Can Make Great Suspense

In the opening for Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother there is a weak and wholesome elderly woman moving through a serene field as the dark sky above her creates a paradoxical image, one of innocence among the darkness. This theme of how image and perception can distract or even convince us of a truth is quite evident in Bong Joon-Ho’s new film about a mother trying to prove innocent her framed mentally challenged son for murder. The woman dances in the beginning to some rhythmically soothing music, at first appearing humorous but when the final images of the film come again of her dancing there is something more haunting about it. That’s what makes this intricate and brilliant thriller such a wonder of modern cinema because when one goes to watch it again even knowing the truth about the ending every scene will take a darker tone making for a engaging and ultimately different experience every time. The first time, however, one can’t deny the foresight and astonishing technicality of the film that compliments every sequence and plot progression creating a murder mystery that is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window or David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Ultimately Bong Joon-Ho plays around with audience perceptions of characters based on looks, actions, and dialogue and manipulates you into thinking one thing is truth when it becomes different in reality. Expanding on his cinematic successes such as Memories of Murder, The Host, and his segment of a three part film entitled Tokyo!, Bong Joon-Ho makes a memorable and darkly haunting thriller that will shock and mystify you with its cinematic clarity and incredibly detailed story.

South Korean cinema has really expanded in the past decade with many notable filmmakers such as Chan Wook-Park’s Vengeance trilogy which includes the infamous Oldboy as well as Ji-woon Kim with a haunting film Tale of Two Sisters. Unlike the others, Bong Joon-Ho is more accessible to audiences due to his ability to intersect comedy with his drama or suspenseful moments, easing the tension while remaining on point. In Mother, Bong Joon-Ho’s script focuses on an unnamed protagonist known only as “Mother” who spends her time running a vegetable store and keeping an eye on her mentally challenged son Do-joon. Immediately we are shown the Mother’s dedication and obsession to keeping her son safe, after a hit and run accident, as well as the son’s obvious mental deficiency, which appears as non-comprehension of basic conversation to forgetting things that just happened not moments ago. After a night of drunkenness, Do-joon heads back home and follows a young high school girl who disappears into a house. The last thing Do-joon sees is a large rock being thrown in his direction from the house landing in front of his feet. The next day the young girl is found dead displayed on the rooftop of the building and Do-joon is charged with the murder of the girl. Do-joon’s Mother takes it into her own hands to find who framed her child after the police and her lawyer are convinced that Do-joon has done it despite his lack of will to do such a crime. The twists and turns of vigilantism reminds us of David Lynch’s bizarre worlds, while remaining tactfully Bong Joon-Ho’s own creation that makes a resemblance of his earlier work Memories of Murder. The story is unique in its development of character as their deeper attributes are revealed to us after first impressions that tap into our cultural biases and our ability to judge someone before getting to know them. There are also many twists as the film comes to a riveting conclusion so those who love a good murder mystery where everything isn’t quite what it seems will definitely enjoy this dark script.

As each sequence reveals more and more to the mystery, either for more clarity or less, there is something incredibly unique as to how Bong Joon-Ho captures all of the dark and detailed images. The tilted angles and the long static shots are all meant to bring the audience deeper into the film, successfully using these elements to either build suspense or deliver humor. One example of each would be the Mother exiting the closet of someone she is spying on while trying not to wake him making the angular and long held shots build suspense of perhaps getting caught while humor is used when Do-joon is drinking some broth at the same time as urinating on a wall where we can see more urine comes out as more broth is consumed. With every film Bong Joon-Ho becomes a more established technical director making every shot count, either in complimenting the progression of plot or just capturing a moment of a particular character’s subjective emotion, such as a beautiful wide and moody shot of Mother drinking alcohol against a tapestry like wall as all seems lost in her case to free her son. Everything shown in each shot also has a purpose, such as the close up of golf clubs which will play a deeper part as the story progresses, but also using the technique of editing when needed to play around with the audience’s tensions. When the Mother is cutting some herbs in the shop her attention is focused on her son as her finger moves closer and closer to the sharp blade, making an uneasy sequence with the editing from eyes, finger, and son. Bong Joon-Ho certainly proves that he can use all of the technical abilities of cinema to strengthen his films and Mother, his fourth film, combines all of them for an engaging thriller.

Suspense is always referenced to the master Alfred Hitchcock, as the pivotal standard of a successful thriller formula. While Mother does attribute its strengths to being highly influenced by Hitchcock films, such as the use of humor for us to relate to characters more and the twists and turns of the plot, there is still something about Bong Joon-Ho’s film that makes it an accomplishment that stands as an example of what modern thrillers should strive to be. The clues to allowing an audience member to figure out the mystery for themselves are carefully but not obviously placed while also keeping a tight dedication to the atmosphere of mystery. This is an important element for modern thrillers to learn from because most of the time everything is too overstated or too predictable, while not being anything more than dependent on the final “twist.” Mother, while incredibly surprising as the conclusion approaches, stands by itself as a well made film that takes a darker undertone as the film is watched a second time, making a duality film that is at once a thriller and second a character study of a Mother willing to do anything to save her child. Films such as Primal Fear or Shutter Island are nothing without their endings and don’t allow for the film to take a second meaning as you watch it again. However, films such as The Usual Suspects, Vertigo, or Blue Velvet allow the audiences to participate in a different way after the surprises are all known and Mother follows these successful thrillers as an accomplishment of suspense cinema.

Bong Joon-Ho makes his fourth feature film a riveting suspense filled twisty thriller that is better than most of the thriller films that have been released in Hollywood the past couple of years. South Korean cinema has made a mark in the past decade and it appears that Bong-Joon Ho will continue making effective films in the decade to come. Mother is methodically paced and provides an intriguing display of mystery, character, and mood that is all aided by the successful use of the technical mediums of cinema. This complex film is not for everyone, especially with its dark subject matter and the fact that it’s in another language, but no one can deny that it’s a marvel of modern suspense storytelling, that is socking and revealing all at the same time. Mother manipulates you in the way cinema should inviting you into a new world where characters are not what they seem and doesn’t neglect beautiful imagery, complex characters, and a twisty theatrical experience.

Grade: A-

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