Kim Hye-ja, "Mother"

Reroll is a new category of posts from the past, that I’ve done for a small number of other outlets besides They are reposted here not because they are exemplary instances of my writing ability, but rather to serve as a simple log or archive of my past efforts, especially with those outlets being difficult to find online any more.


This particular post was originally for The Korea Society Film Blog when it was still around. I had seen the film during the original theatricalrun while in Korea, shortly before the time of writing this in July of 2009.

For those interested, the film Mother recently(July 2010) became available in the U.S. on DVD, Blu-ray and streaming video via Magnolia Pictures.

When Bong Joon-ho announced his fourth film after the record-breaking hit The Host would be a murder mystery about a mother and her wrongly accused son, I was one of many worried about it being a retread of his masterful second film, Memories of Murder. Would Bong be able to replicate the tight pacing and cinematic completeness he had with that film once more?


As it stands, his latest Mother is thankfully not a retread in the slightest. Its lead is obviously a woman – not a young face, but a veteran actress with wrinkles and a compelling presence throughout. In the titular role, Kim Hye-ja is up against circumstantial evidence, impatient police, a self-important lawyer, and unbelieving townsfolk. This mother descends into the dilemma of clearing the murder charge on her only son. I call it a descent because she goes down a long, dark rabbit hole full of questions to face the unfortunate souls that may have answers to the real murderer of the high school girl that her son is alleged to have killed. Each newly uncovered piece of evidence and person of interest needs more than a few rounds of vetting, and the turns made are fast and always unexpected.

Kim Hye-ja is, as Bong once said, and rightly so, the “mother” of a certain generation of South Koreans that watched years and years worth of her on television dramas. I’d take a rough guess they are the generations born somewhere between the 1950’s and 80’s that fit the category more than any other – the folks that narrowly missed the war, saw a Republic of Korea rise from the ashes, stumble through the labor demonstrations and extended presidencies, that felt the pride of hosting the Olympics and the throes of a massive financial bubble burst. All along, there was a mother on TV and she was Kim Hye-ja.

It is a welcome but sobering surprise that in all these years, Bong Joon-ho is only the third director to capture this very talented actress for the big screen. Bong has crafted a murder story set in a poorer countryside town that some have disagreeably called cliché. But many will agree that he was able to capture this character’s every essence with Kim Hye-ja’s nuanced portrayal – and that it is truly one of the strongest, most hard-hitting performances from any actress in Korean cinema.

The full-body title shot of Hye-ja in the country field, as the word “Mother” scrawls into place is at once powerful yet wanting, because we instantly recognize that certain look on her face – not what it means exactly, but what it feels. Kim’s superb performance that follows is similarly riddled with the grace, nerve, love, hysteria, and honesty that we have come to expect from our mothers.

Won Bin surprises as country bumpkin Do-joon

Do-joon is her 27-year-old son, unemployed and mentally challenged. He needs his mother, it is as simple and as complicated as that. When he is arrested and separated from her, both find themselves at odds with the idea of each other. Although I never really paid attention to Won Bin’s previous drama and film work mostly as a “pretty-boy,” Do-joon’s revelations and moments of “clarity” is where he shines, with an uncanny knack for gripping urgency that shakes up our expectations of this helpless character.

The blue inflections of Latin music on the score somehow fit very naturally for a small Korean countryside. There is one particular, if wholly forgivable, visual gimmick Bong has used before in The Host. At times unnervingly close and at others expansive, his camera is determined, stylized, tense, full of bleaker tones than his previous films – is there a light at the end? Like Memories, and all good murder mysteries, Mother‘s sleuthing for the truth is what compels the story forward. Somewhere between the high emotions and the low depths, however, it becomes quite clear that what Bong really wants is to unsettle us with the question, “How far does the rabbit hole go?” When the credits roll, I couldn’t help but feel a familiar sense of spent frustration and sorrow – in fact, whether the mystery is solved is unimportant because by then, we have witnessed a force of nature. There is an answer, one that will haunt me for some time to come. Things happen, too specific to repeat here. Though I will say that by the end of the film, you understand everything that was shuffling through mother’s head on that expansive field.

The other possible question that remains is whether Mother bests Memories of Murder. For an unabashed Bong Joon-ho fan like myself, I would say it’s pretty darn close.

Director Bong Joon-ho

Tags: bong joon-ho, korea, mother, reroll, review