Get rid of your expectations.
From the trailer, it looks like Mother is the story of a mother’s quest to clear her son’s name of murder. It is that. But it is so much more. This is one of those great and rare movies that has a byzantine plot full of surprises, but is also a powerful character study of a bizarre and driven woman. Any preconceived notions of martyr-mothers, and Eleni-style theatrics will be dashed here. Mothers can be awesome. They can also be monstrous. This one is both. She is played by Hye-ja Kim in what is, honestly, one of the most amazing performances I have ever seen. Certainly more raw and honest than any of the Best Actress nominees from this year. I struggle to come up with comparisons.
The only thing I came up with was when I saw Beauty Queen of Leenane, first on Broadway, and then in Chapel Hill, where my brother was in a production of it. When the Martin McDonagh juggernaut began, it was rather startling because while we have some wonderful writers here in America, many of them are not writing plays with big surprise elements or character excavations. I do not want to paint with too wide a brush. John Patrick Shanley continues to write plays with great characters and good stories, but many of our plays now are about their THEMES and IDEAS, which is all well and good, but if I want to read a pamphlet, then I’ll, you know, read a pamphlet. How about some intrigue? How about some bombs being dropped in the second act, so we can watch the fall-out in the third? How about some good old-fashioned story-making? This is one of the reasons why God of Carnage (my review here) was so exhilarating. It was unafraid. Unafraid to go big. The Irish, at the time of Beauty Queen, were at the forefront, once again, in writing plays that weren’t ABOUT anything, per se, no social consciousness or political agenda, but in-depth portrayals of the characters in those moments in time, giving us the chance to sits back and watch the horrible and wonderful things that they did. People with secrets and hatreds and losses that burned like fire. In Beauty Queen, McDonagh gives us Mag, the mother, a truly horrific personality, out of a Greek tragedy. She is hilariously funny, off her rocker, and truly cruel in a way that takes your breath away. You think you have a line on her, you think you will be allowed to pity her, but then she is so terrible you turn around and judge her. You, the audience, are in conflict about your own reactions. Great playwriting. The Greeks talked about catharsis. An event that brings about a “purging”. Not of any random emotion, but of pity or terror. The Greeks knew what they were about. And so does Martin McDonagh, whose play owes much to the Greeks. Should we pity Mag? Or should be filled with terror? The play leaves this unresolved, as all great plays do, and she is a character that becomes rooted in your mind, like Blanche Dubois, or Macbeth. Our feelings about her are meant to remain unresolved, and you could argue about her with your friends after the production: was she a victim? A monster? How should we FEEL about this woman? Plays that always attempt to tell the audience how to feel (telegraphing: “this is a bad guy – hate him” or “this is an innocent victim – weep for him”) are pandering, soulless. But in Beauty Queen of Leenane, we are given a character we can sink our teeth into. Something that is so much missing in today’s drama. Character. How many modern-day playwrights give us characters that live on in the memory?
There is a bit of Mag in the “Mother” in Mother, and to say more would be to give it away.
Bong Joon-Ho (my review of his excellent Memories of Murder here) is working at full throttle in Mother, from the getgo, when we are thrust into the action. The film begins with a wide shot of a field of waving yellow grass, and we see Hye-ja Kim, in the distance, walking through the grass. She seems completely ordinary. She is an older woman, dressed modestly, and while she seems distracted, lost in thought, there is nothing extraordinary about her or the state she is in. She stands in the grass, in closeup, looking around her.
What happens next is so unexpected that I would never dream of giving it away, but within 30 seconds, Bong has launched us into a world where we should know, right off the bat, that we can’t ever know everything. We think we know someone. Just from looking at them for the first time. And then they behave like THAT. Forget it. No more expectations. My primal response to that first 30 seconds of film was, quite literally, WHO. IS. THIS. WOMAN????
The best part of Mother is that I still do not have the answer.
Mother lives with her son Yoon Do-joon (played by Bin Won), a man in his 20s, and he is obviously mentally deficient in some indefinable way, he certainly cannot make it on his own. There is no father. Mother and son live in a bell jar of intimacy, even sleeping in the same bed.
Do-Joon hangs out primarily with Jin-Tae (played beautifully by Ku Jin), a guy who was probably his childhood friend, and now keeps hanging out with his friend, even though he’s a bit “off”. Jin-Tae is a cool dude, with a hot little girlfriend, and he is set up in the film, early on, as vaguely suspicious. You wonder what he’s up to. Part of the fun of Mother (and I say “fun” meaning: “dawning horror and realization”) is realizing that your first impressions of people are more often than not totally wrong. The entire film is from Mother’s point of view. What she knows, we know. Nothing more. There is zero objectivity here. She fears for her son’s well-being, and naturally Jin-Tae becomes her first target. But that is only because her intimacy with her son is so cloying that she cannot see the truth. The film is her journey, relentless and brutal, towards the truth.
Do-Joon and Jin-Tae are involved in a mild hit-and-run accident. A Mercedes clocks Do-Joon on the street and speeds away. Jin-Tae becomes hellbent on revenge, so they follow the car to a local golf course. Jin-Tae smashes the mirror of the Mercedes. They ambush the golf cart and have a brawling fight with the men in the sand. The police get involved. Mother is horrified.
This is one of the tricks of Mother, which manages to startle and surprise without feeling tricky or clever. It seems that the film may be about the boys getting their revenge on the guys who ran them down. Mother follows that path. Then takes a turn.
A local high school girl is murdered. Her body is hung over the railing on a roof, for the populace to find the next morning. It is a small community, not used to such violence, and everyone is shocked. Do-Joon was the last to see her (he has followed her through the narrow streets after a night out with Jin-Tae), and so he is arrested for murder.
Mother knows he didn’t do it. The police are convinced they have their man. Mother launches her own investigation. She, at first, focuses on Jin-Tae, the “bad seed” influence on her innocent son. There is an absolute masterpiece of a sequence, reminiscent of Sudden Fear, when Mother goes to Jin-Tae’s flimsy abode, and searches his closet for clues. She finds a golf club with a red stain on it that looks like blood. During her search, Jin-Tae returns home, with his girlfriend, and she hides in the closet. There are shots where you see Hye-ja Kim’s terrified eyes peeking through the curtains, calling to mind every film noir ever made (or a shaft of light falling across Joan Crawford’s face in Sudden Fear). Bong Joon-Ho knows how to build suspense. He chooses his shots very carefully. We see through the closet-curtains, getting glimpses of Jin-Tae and his girlfriend making love. We are then out in the apartment, and in the foreground we see the making love going on, but in the background, we can see the gleaming eyeballs peering out through the curtain. It is a nervewrackingly unbearable sequence. After sex, Jin-Tae and his girlfriend pass out, and Mother takes her chance to escape. She has the incriminating golf club in her hand, and she tiptoes through the room, at a deadly slow pace (the floor squeaks), and at any moment she could be discovered. At one point, her foot knocks over a bottle of water, and it spills, the gurgling sound filling the room. Jin-Tae does not wake up. We see Mother’s face, looking down in horror, and we then see what she sees: a small pool of water, spreading outwards, moving towards Jin-Tae’s dangling fingers. Bong Joon-Ho, in true Hitchcockian suspense style, closes in on the approach of that water to the fingers, which will most certainly wake him up. We are at ground-level, the fingers enormous in the frame, with a thin glimmering line of water approaching in the distance.
This is solid filmmaking. This is a director in charge of his effects, who understands what audiences need. There’s fun in his shot-choices, creativity, but it is all means to an end. He doesn’t set up shots to call attention to themselves unless it is necessary (similar to the giant crane shot in Notorious, with the camera coming down from the balcony into microscopic closeup on Ingrid Bergman’s hand: a shot that demands to be noticed, a stunner – but it is only because the STORY demands it at that point, not that Hitchcock was psyched to show his own cleverness). The creep of the water in Mother, coming towards the giant fingers in the foreground, is an attention-getter, but is is also emotional: it shows the horror of Mother’s point of view. What will happen if Jae Tin wakes up? All is lost, all is lost … her panicked mindset is IN that shot. It is one of Bong’s many gifts as a director.
Mother is a film about a private investigation (Bong Joon-Ho covering, as he did in Memories of Murder the territory of police procedures and forensic evidence), headed by a single citizen, and the majority of the film shows Mother interviewing people who knew the dead girl, putting together a timeline of the night before, trying to build up a character study of the dead girl – because (as all good homicide detectives know) it is often the personality and lifestyle of the victim that holds the clue to who killed her. Mother follows every lead. She pays the kids at the high school who knew the dead girl to gossip about her, giving them coins to continue. She finds an important ally in Jae-Tin (once she gets over her suspicion).
The deceptions in the plot are part of the great joy of Mother, and the sucker-punches it provides (which are never in the realm of cheap “Gotcha” moments) is indicative of the fact that Bong Joon-Ho not only respects his audience, and expects that we want to be surprised and challenged, but also that he wants, above all else, to give us a great great ride. He does not disappoint.
And Hye-ja Kim, relentless, fearless, a bludgeoning force against the injustices of the system (but to what end? that is the question), turns in a performance for the ages. I was so frightened during one scene that my natural instinct was to shut my eyes to spare myself having to see what was coming. But then there was a moment of conscious decision: No, Sheila. Keep your eyes open. You are not going to want to miss her acting here.
And you won’t want to miss it either.
In that moment, or in the film entire.