Last night, enticed by the enjoyment had from Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, we went to see his latest, lauded in Cannes, and opened a week or two ago to BO boffo here in Korea. Mother by title, starring now middle-age star Kim Hye-ja as a real ajjuma, and TV series heart-throb Won Bin as her mentally slow 28 year old son. Kicking off in his observant style with a very Korean little shop, where mother labors away peddling various herbal items, he promptly shifts gears into a commercial hook: Do-joon, the not-swift son is side-swiped by a Mercedes on the small town street outside the door of Mom’s shop, and we get a quick dose of smashing cars, blood, and obligatory commercial tension. Do-joon prompted by his smarter “friend” takes off to exact revenge at a nearby golf-course, an episode which lands up in a police station. This is mere set-up, to underline Do-joon’s not-all-there state, Mom’s desperate love for him, and to sketch in the provincial small town setting. The real stuff arrives later, when a school girl is found dead leaning over the roof-top parapet of a building. Duly evidence points to dim-witted Do-joon, who is prompted to a confession by the local good-cop bad-cop guys, and Mom, ever protective kicks into high gear to prove his innocence. One plot contrivance falls tidily into place after another as Bong delivers adrenalin jolts, a touch of comedy, blood, a scrambled time-sequence, repeats of earlier scenes, Hye-ja in melodramatic high gear, and hyping the thriller tension with various devices, some rather well-worn as the genre cliches pile up. All this leads to an ever less believable story when at end it turns out that indeed Do-joon did do it, and Mom in turn kills the witness who saw it, sets fire to his place, and wanders (suddenly less bloody that she should be) off into a lovely grassy field, the same one in which Bong had begun the film with Hye-ja strangely dancing. Had he concluded the film here, it might have lingered as an elusive vaguely Lynchian weird one. However Bong lays on another 15 minutes or so of further explication which serves only to underline the heavy plot contrivances which he’d laid out to make his story.
As you might gather, I was not much taken by this film, though there were many things I did like and enjoy. Bong has a very clean and direct cinematic visual style, and his observation of real-life seems acute, at least for things Korean. Settings, gestures, behavioral actions are clearly drawn from his close view of Korean life, and the texture he sets his stories in is richly drawn. Likewise the sets and the lighting are all credible, utterly lacking in the glossy falseness which pervades Hollywood films of our times. Unfortunately in this case he seems to have felt compelled to cram a connect-the-dots commercial pot-boiler into this setting, flawed with far too much plot contrivance, and further damaged by a dim one-note performance by Won Bin, who may be a tube hottie, but he’s no actor. His characterization boiled down to an asymmetrical lip curl and bugged eyes. A few other performances were less than great as well (a secondary detective comes to mind).
Given Bong’s gifts for observation, his succinct visual style, and his usual ability to evince strong performances, I’d like to see him do something less plot driven, along the lines of Hou Hsou Hsien, something that perhaps tells a very simple story while simply showing Korean culture as it is. I would think he could do something very wonderful along that line, though it seems clear that neither the Korean film industry would be inclined to fund such a non-commercial film, and perhaps Bong would have no interest either. Pity.