Tuesday 23 December 2014

A Retrieved Note on Bong Joon-ho's masterpiece Mother (2010)

First sighted at Cannes last year in the Un Certain Regard section (many thought it should have been selected for the Competition) Korean film-maker Bong Joon-ho’s fourth feature film Mother has gone on to be a major selection at just about every film festival round the globe since and confirmed Bong’s reputation as South Korea’s sharpest maker of varied high class entertainments. He has been feted throughout North America in particular and its not hard to see why. In this neck of the woods, the film was rushed into release in Sydney almost immediately after its Cannes success and dumped, without a dollar spent on advertising, into a Chinatown cinema which has since closed down. That was a significant mistake by the distributors of one of the year’s best films and it seems that some attempt was made to rectify it when the film later played the Melbourne International Film Festival and drew appreciative crowds.

Mother displays an assurance in suspenseful story telling that is remarkable. Perhaps no surprise at its accomplishments need be registered when it’s recalled that Bong also directed the absorbing police procedural Memories of Murder as well as the enigmatic Barking Dogs Don’t Bite and that exhilarating entertainment The Host. We’re dealing here with the work of someone who knows how to make smart, edge of the seat movies which keep audiences guessing and aren’t afraid to be witty and extravagant.

Mother is a story in Hitchcockian vein, tailored for audiences today that like their thrills to contain rather more explicit material and rather more down and dirty human foibles than even those revealed in the old master’s most extreme displays of human nastiness. An intellectually challenged young man, goaded by a cynical mate, attempts to accost a young girl walking home alone late at night. Who she is, what she does and what he does form the core of the story which we are led through by the boy’s mother, a somewhat hapless figure who makes a living selling herbal remedies and giving illegal acupuncture treatments. She’s convinced he’s innocent and sets out to prove it. Mothers are like that - always wanting to believe the best about their kids no matter what the evidence. She however is like the rest of the population – cops, crooks, thugs, schoolboys, schoolgirls and more – all just that bit twisted, just that bit tempted to be nasty when they can.

The film opens with a lyrical shot of a middle aged woman slowly approaching the camera in some seemingly idyllic rural setting. She begins to dance as the credits roll. Then we cut, back we only later know, to a mother in her business keeping an eye on her errant son in the street just at the moment when he’s arrested for the murder. Tracking through the story with her provides thrills and shocks and more than a bit of bone jarring violence in the rather graphic fashion known as the modern way. But there’s quite some mastery here in telling the story and Korea’s soft underbelly, a nation on the collective make and out to get what it can, gets more than a little attention.

After four films its safe to say now that Bong knows how to cover all the bases of the modern thriller, with villains ranging from enigmatic neighbours, unknown assailants, a monster in the river and, in the latest case, a might be might not be, casual killer. He is one of the new Asian masters of the noughties and we should treat his films as major events in the way we do with new work from Hirokazu Kore-eda, Wong Kar-wai, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. He’s that good.

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