Korean director Bong Joon-ho populates the world of Mother with sad, ugly people -- bums, boobs, jerks, and perverts. It seems to be a terrible way to view a society, but it's actually quite compelling because we can recognize everyone there. There are truths to be found amidst these flawed citizens, all of whom are normal people just dealing with whatever comes their way in the only way they're wired to do. No one, perhaps, is more flawed than the titular mother, Mrs. Yoon, perfectly played by Kim Hye-ja.
She might be what you'd call an average person getting by -- widowed, runs her own shop, practices an unlicensed profession on the side (acupuncture) for the benefit of her friends. All the while she overly dotes on her young adult son, Do-joon (Won Bin), who appears to be somewhat mentally challenged -- he's not exactly handicapped, but he is quite slow on the uptake, has a horrible memory, and seems to be oblivious to the events around him most of the time. As it happens, one night he was in the area where a teenage girl was found murdered. Very quickly, the police determine he's the prime suspect and lock him away in the local prison; his mother, who can not fathom that her son would even have the capability of harming anyone, then becomes determined to find out the truth behind the murder.
Although this could've led to a fairly generic thriller, Mother is anything but. Mrs. Yoon's "investigation" is impulsive and a bit reckless -- e.g., at the start, she quickly decides that Do-joon's misbehaving friend must be the real culprit and sneaks into his house to steal evidence -- and continues until she trawls out some unsavory secrets and causes some real harm. But all the while, we can see this person is going to do exactly what she's going to do because she can't help it. She's a mother whose son literally means everything to her, and she's not equipped to handle the crisis, so she unwittingly bumbles her way through this journey. She's driven, like everyone else in the picture, by an overpowering protective instinct (the same instinct, incidentally, that drove the main players in Bong's The Host). "Protective" could also be translated as "defensive," and when people most strongly react with this trait, everything else that happens is fallout.
Bong presents his characterizations with a blend of black humor and pathos, understanding that this wrecking ball story is both a comedy and a tragedy. He also happens to write (along with co-writer Park Eun-kyo) one heck of a narrative -- the third act comes across as a tightly wound series of ironic and appalling events unfolding with precision. Mother runs the gamut of people's bad behaviors -- laziness, greed, salaciousness, voyeurism, and fear of accountability -- and gives us a rather low view of humanity; but it's honest, and in the end we're given the choice to resign with either a smile or sigh at the thought of most people preferring to dance away from all the troubles they've accumulated.
(Released by Magnolia Pictures and rated "R" for language, some sexual content, language and drug use.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.