(Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2009)
Having seen and enjoyed The Host, I was eagerly looking forward to Bong's latest effort, and Mother didn't disappoint. Filmmakers like Bong hold a certain fascination for me because they are contemporary examples of popular artists - they bring gravity and depth to what could be considered, at a glace, to be genre exercises - and in doing so they invest the term "popular artist" with real meaning. Straddling that line, especially in cinema, has lately seemed rather difficult, with most offerings being evenly split between pretentious awards-bait and pandering, droolingly stupid spectacles. There are plenty of exceptions, and I believe Bong is one of them, but in the current firmament of world cinema they remain exceptions, and they deserve special attention when they emerge. (It should be noted that TV is one area where the aesthetically and philosophically high-minded mingle with the grit and grime of the pulp sensibility. Cinema, I believe, still has some catching up to do.)
Mother is a solid amalgamation of the potboiler and the serious art film, and it works marvelously about 90% of the time. In following the increasingly desperate misadventures of the titular character, Bong exposes the gray area between protectiveness and suffocation, between familial love and near-psychotic codependency. As a crafted story, its exemplary. Perfectly paced and visually dexterous, it shows Bong's impressive range as a filmmaker. Emotionally, too, there are moments of resonating sadness and desperation - the lead actress' performance is particularly fascinating as it alternates between evoking fear, pity, and lurid fascination.
There's a thematic undercurrent to Mother as well, and its here that Bong doesn't quite deliver all the goods. Other discussions of the film (as well as discussions of The Host) have revolved around the perceived political subtext in the film, and the extent to which Bong can be said to be offering a semi-furtive critique of South Korean society, which appears, on the evidence of his films, to be plagued with political oppression of a subtle but devastating variety. There's no doubt that that exists in Mother, but what fascinated me, and what I believe is an ambition worthy of consideration as serious art, was the near-Shakespearean tragedy of the central character. Bereft of anyone in the world to count on besides her son, she ends up creating something of a monster, and in the process of discovering the truth about his potential for brutality, realizes her own monstrosity. This is classic, heady, high-tragic stuff, but it doesn't quite all make it off the page. It may be that Boon spends just a bit too much time on the procedural aspect of the plot, in which there are various digressions and the obligatory twists of the policier (some of which serve comedic purposes), or it may be that he's not quite ready to go all the way in reducing the story down to its essence. Either way, there are moments along the way, and especially towards the end, where things became too on-the-nose for my taste. There are however many more moments of glory, and when Bong and his accomplices are in the zone, they can really make magic happen. The final moments of the film are pure examples of that magic - cinema at its emotional and philosophical best, and its for moments like those that I'll keep coming back to this filmmaker's work.