Joon-ho Bong’s Mother is a twofer. It’s inconsistent in tone and theme and wants to rush through a lot of plot in a short time. It contains scenes that are unclear and lead nowhere even on a second viewing. It seems to tell two stories at once, but never really manages to convince its audience that they should be in the same film.
The crucial story driving the plot is a murder whodunit. There is a teenage son who drinks half the night and then staggers back home at night. Suddenly there’s a young girl walking in front of him. He calls out to her, but she disappears into a dark, empty house. The son can’t figure out if she was really there and has all but forgotten about her in the morning. Then she turns up dead on the flat roof of the house she disappeared in. He is a suspect because, well, he’s been seen with the victim near the house.
The other story is his mother who is determined to do everything in her power to prove that her son is innocent. It doesn’t help that the boy is naïve, bordering on mental deficiency. Why else would he grin like a fool while he demonstrates to the police how he carried the girl up onto the roof? But I digress – it’s the mother who plays the biggest part in the film. She raises money for a lawyer who turns out to be useless. On a hunch, she goes to get evidence at the house of her son’s best friend, whom she considers bad company, and to her own surprise really finds a golf club with a blood smear on it. It’s bad luck that the friend comes home with his girlfriend, and so the mother hides behind the curtains, golf club in hand, while the couple is budy shagging. That scene is close to comedy, while the girl’s murder (which happens off-screen) is a scary bit of atmospheric horror.
There is a beautiful scene where the mother walks through a field of tall pale grass and then does a little dance. It’s a throwaway scene, and I am not sure what it means, but it pays homage to the actress, to Hie-ya Kim, who is said to be one of the most famous stage actresses in South Korea.
I think the scenes with the zealous mother work well, but are uneven – they venture from pathos to horror to farce and back. She is not an avenging angel, but cares for her only child because she is convinced that he is innocent. As a character study, the movie is admirable. The whodunit is less successful because there seem to be two or even three ways the crime could have been committed. I am not at all against open endings, but three possibilities seem a bit much for a movie that is plot-heavy and contains a fair number of red herrings.