Mother is the kind of movie that stays with you, the kind of movie you find yourself gravitating back to whenever your mind starts to wander from the task at hand. You realize you’ve been shampooing your hair for five minutes while pondering the visual symbolism of a certain nuanced shot. You pause, sandwich halfway to your mouth, hypnotized by memories of Hye-Ja Kim’s performance.
You wonder ponderously whether you understand director Joon-ho Bong’s motives. Does Mother cunningly reveal the truth through its twisted, turning plot? Or does the truth remain hidden, obscured by convincing stories from secondhand sources and possible liars, by murky memories and the imaginations of characters who are slightly less than sane? And, in end, does it even matter? Because, really, was the plot ever the point?
That said, while it may not be the point, the plot is what gets you thinking.
Mother is the story of a middle-aged, low-income South Korean woman’s struggle to vindicate her son after he is arrested for the murder of a neighborhood girl. Played by Kim, the woman is known only as Mother throughout the film — fitting, as she seems to have no sense of identity outside of her maternal role.
Mother lives for her son — a handsome young man in his mid-twenties, with the memory and intelligence of an elementary school child. She supports him, cares for him and cooks for him. Mother and son even sleep in the same bed. He’s stupid and harmless, to the point that he allows himself to be wrongfully charged with property damage after his best friend smashes the side mirror of an expensive car early in the movie.
When he’s arrested for murder, Mother insists that her son is innocent, and we agree. This guy, commit murder? Impossible.
Without money to pay an attorney, Mother begins her own brand of criminal investigation, sneaking around the neighborhood as she spies on possible subjects and paying neighborhood kids for information on the murdered girl.
Mother seems a little unstable, but you’re rooting for her; it’s a classic underdog story. And for a moment, a conspiracy seems to be taking shape: The girl prostituted herself for food and kept pictures of her clients on her cell phone. Could it have been one of them?
But just as you’re expecting Mother to discover the true killer, the whole story gets turned on its head. Suddenly, the story is about something much worse than finding a murderer. It cuts down to the marrow of Mother’s character, yielding a portrait of who she is and what she must do to protect her son that is both horrifying and sympathetic.
Mother is a true psychological thriller. Where many films in the genre rely on tense music and ridiculous mind-f--- strategies to deliver often less-than-satisfying “thrills,” Mother explores the explosive — and even deadly — power of the human heart, a power that any one of us might tap.