Since none of yesterday’s Korean Film Festival offerings really took my fancy, I opted to begin filling the gaps in my viewing of Bong Joon-Ho’s films. Like many others, I first encountered his work in The Host [Gwoemul] (2006), a hugely entertaining monster movie which took satirical sideswipes at US exploitation of South Korea and opted not to go with the Hollywood happy ending. His follow-up film completely evaded my awareness when it was released, but thanks to SBS On Demand I’ve finally been able to watch Mother [Madeo] (2009).
Kim Hye-ja plays the mother of the title, a widowed herbalist who moonlights illegally as an acupuncturist to boost her income. She dotes on her adult son Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin), who presents with an intellectually disability, keeping an eagle eye on him from her workplace during the day and allowing him to share her bed at night. His best friend, much to her distaste, is local thug Jin-tae (Jin Goo) – when Do-joon is almost run down by a Mercedes near the beginning of the film, Jin-tae collects him in his car and pursues the hit-and-run drivers to the local golf course so they can exact some minor revenge.
Returning home drunk from an intended evening out having fun with Jin-tae (who never showed), Do-joon spends part of his journey stumbling after high school girl Moon Ah-jung (Moon Hee-ra), who is walking the streets alone. When she is discovered dead the following morning, with the only clue being a golf ball bearing Do-joon’s name found nearby, he is arrested by the police and pressured into signing a confession under extremely dubious circumstances. With the centre of her life gone, his mother immediately launches upon a campaign to establish his innocence and secure his release from prison.
The film is scattered with unusual relationships and odd characters which give the film its special flavour. It sets itself out as a bit different from its opening scene, which features Kim Hye-ja slowly approaching the camera through tall waving grass before performing a dance number to the opening music – although some context for the scene is provided late into the film, it’s still far from what you would expect from any other film with a similar setup. Kong Suk-Ho (Yeo Mu-yeong), the lawyer she has retained to defend her son, only meets with Do-joon for less than a minute before leaving at the prompting of a pre-arranged call and shows little evidence of doing anything, until he sends a car to bring Hye-ja to meet him. She finds him considerably drunk in a brothel accompanied by the magistrate and prosecutor (both unconscious) and three bored young women, proceeding to attempt to sell her on the deal he’s brokered using the medium of karaoke. At this point I was seriously wondering whether the movie would turn out to be a stealth musical.
As the movie unfolds, largely from the perspective of Kim Hye-ja’s character, various secrets are unearthed about the town – including details which may throw more light on Do-joon and his mother – varying between comic and tragic. It’s a prime example of Bong Joon-ho’s skill at building his films around believably human oddballs with fully realised inner lives which can venture into darker places. Winning awards under multiple categories from 27 different international bodies, it doesn’t appear to be well known outside of film criticism circles, but having now seen it myself I hope that last year’s success of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite [Gisaengchung] (2019) will lead to this film becoming more widely known.