out of Five
Running time: 128
Bong Joon-ho's eagerly awaited follow-up to The Host is a brilliantly directed, superbly written and stunningly acted thriller that's simultaneously gripping, darkly funny and powerfully emotional.
What's it all about?
Directed by Bong Joon-ho (The Host), Mother stars Kim Hye-ja (a familiar matriarchal face to Korean audiences) as the unnamed, fiercely protective single mother to dopey son Do-joon (Won Bin). When a young woman is found murdered, a golf ball places Do-joon at the scene of the crime and he's promptly arrested for murder, with the police seemingly uninterested in investigating any further.
However, Mother remains convinced of her son's innocence, so she sets out to find the real killer. Initially, she suspects Do-joon's ne'er-do-well best friend Jin-tae (Jin Goo), but he turns out to have some impressive detective skills of his own and also comes in handy when questioning potential witnesses.
Kim Hye-ja (the Korean equivalent of, say, Brenda Blethyn) is terrific as Mother, delivering a performance that is simultaneously chilling, funny and genuinely moving; she's also a gifted physical actress, conveying shifting depths of emotion with just a flicker of expression. Won Bin is equally good, ensuring that there's constant suspense in the question of just how much Do-joon knows, while Jin Goo has a strongly charismatic presence as Jin-tae.
The film is also beautifully shot, with some strikingly memorable scenes and images, such as some spilled water moving along the floor towards sleeping Jin-tae's hand, the astonishing final shot or a typically weird, darkly funny sequence in which Mother chats to her son while he urinates against a wall outside their house.
Bong Joon-ho displays his characteristic control of tone throughout, effortlessly shifting from moments of horror to black comedy to powerful emotional drama and back again, often within the same scene. The script is excellent, gradually revealing telling character details that allow you to reach your own conclusions rather than laying it all out on a plate for you, Hollywood-style.
The script is also extremely clever in places – for example, Mother's insistence that her acupuncture skills can help retrieve repressed memories initially seems like nonsense, but these scenes turn out to have unexpected, powerfully emotional consequences.
Gripping, darkly funny and powerfully emotional, Mother is a brilliantly directed Korean thriller with a terrific central performance from Kim Hye-ja. Highly recommended.