Thursday, April 1, 2010

Mother ("Madeo") directed by Joon-Ho Bong

Hye-ja Kim plays a mom to be reckoned with in Joon-ho Bong's Mother ("Madeo")

Korean director Joon-Ho Bong is a living master, a filmmaker on par with the great Pedro Almodovar in his use of melodrama to create entertaining character studies with overt existential implications. In other words, the movies Bong makes are deep, broad, and beautiful in ways that reward not only watching but rewatching (unlike, say, the movies of Michael Bay, which go down smoothly and exit the system just as quickly, like powerful laxatives). I say this after watching 3 of Bong's films: Memories of Murder, The Host, and Mother.

Memories of Murder is a based-on-true-events murder mystery set in the hinterlands of Korea, where a provincial detective squad finds itself outmatched by a serial killer. The Host is a creature-from-the-depths action-horror flick set in Seoul, where a farcically dysfunctional family is forced to band together to rescue their youngest from the clutches of a truly scary monster. And Mother, his latest movie, is a return to the outlands of Korea, where an indigent middle-aged woman becomes her slow-witted son's only champion when he is charged with the bizarre murder of a young girl. These plots are sensational, yes, but they serve as vehicles for Bong's more sublime creations: his characters.

In the first 2 movies, Bong used the malleable Kang-ho Song as his putative lead actor, making the most of Song's slack-jowled, shaggy-dog demeanor to depict everyman characters who find themselves out of their depths. Song plays a detective in Memories of Murder who is comfortable in his place and (perceived) abilities, until all of his assumptions get tested as he and his squadmates fall farther & farther behind a diabolical killer. In The Host, Song plays an incompetent slacker running a parkside snack stand who is forced into action alongside his crazed siblings when his sole source of happiness is literally snatched up and dragged into the Yellow River. But, in Mother, Bong has the amazing Hye-ja Kim as the middle-aged, indigent matron who pushes herself almost beyond her capabilities as she doggedly works to save her son.

The best movies create whole worlds and invite viewers to share some time with their inhabitants, not like tourists but like household guests. Viewers get to rub elbows and share meals with the movie's characters, getting to know them in an up-close & palpable way. Family and community dynamics inform the movie's events and color our perceptions of personality, becoming as inextricable from the story as the conventions of genre. This is what Bong does, and he is at his best with Hye-ja Kim in Mother.

The movie begins with Kim standing in a meadow. There is a mist in the air. The tall grass is brown. The music is elegaic. Slowly, she begins to dance, but it's a dance that befits the autumnal environment -- hesitant and primitive -- and the play of emotions across Kim's face is haunting in its expressiveness. It's a scene that only the best of directors and actresses could pull off, and it emphasizes Kim as the movie's focal point. Her son (played by Taegukgi star Bin Won) may be trapped at the center of a murder investigation, but this story is really about her.

We then cut to the cramped stall where Kim's character sells herbs, which she is busy slicing when she looks out and notices her son across the street, playing with a dog. She pauses, and in that instant, a car slams into her son. She screams and runs to him as the car takes off. Luckily, he is relatively unharmed, and, emblematically, the blood she becomes hysterical about is actually her own, from the finger she nicked when she screamed.

From here, the plot moves quickly. After all, as I've mentioned, Bong is a master of genre, and he obviously recognizes the importance of pace in melodrama. He packs the movie with incidents, including an exploration of the strange friendship between the addled son & a local malcontent, but he also avoids the traps of exposition that plague the dialogs of the average police procedural. (Oh, what the writers of the Law & Order franchises could learn from Bong!)

To paraphrase the comic novelist Stanley Elkin, plot is what happens when characters decide to act. As much as circumstances can impinge on a character, such as the police investigation of a shocking murder, the real story is in how the character reveals itself. For instance, in Memories of Murder, the story is less about the crimes being investigated than it's about what criminality does to all of us, from the innocent to the guilty to the bystander. And, in Mother, what Kim eventually reveals is (forgive the pun) revelatory. Despite her indigence and marginal status in her community, she becomes a mother to be reckoned with, and the plot stops pushing her around and starts being pushed by her, raising the universal question of how far any of us would go to save our children.

Mother ends as it began, with Kim dancing, but the difference between that first dance and the last one would, if I explained it, be a spoiler. You really should experience Mother for yourself. It's a masterpiece.

In its latest issue, the Las Vegas Weekly's reviewer agrees that Mother is a masterpiece, though its own review says precious little about the movie itself, preferring instead to wonder whether Joon-ho Bong will move to America to peddle his skills in Hollywood.

Still, finding others whose aesthetic judgments mirror your own is gratifying. Watching the films of Joon-ho Bong is even more so.

directed by Joon-ho Bong
starring Hye-ja Kim and Bin Won

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