Mother, a relatively focused drama about a mother’s quest to prove her son’s innocence, isn’t the most obvious follow-up to Bong Joon-ho’s previous film, The Host. That film, a monster movie about a giant tadpole that slimily regurgitates its prey through a mouth that looks like a nightmarish vagina dentata, was a kinetic, gorgeous man vs. beast action that makes competition seem like petting zoos, brimming with Molotov cocktails, biological warfare, competitive archery, lots of Korean snacks, and inappropriately-timed slapstick. Yet there’s enough thematic similarities between the two to fuel at least enough academic papers for each of the Octomom’s future grandchildren. And birth canal motifs aside, Mother manages to refine much of what made Bong’s previous work so affecting while also breaking new ground for the relatively young director.
Behind the visual spectacle, at its mucousy core, The Host was more interested in family dynamics than smashing cars and buildings. In Mother, with no CGI monsters and extended family crowding the screen, Bong’s interweaving of familial guilt and love is crystal clear and, though reduced to a single relationship between the titular Mother (Hye-ja Kim) and her son Yoon Do-joon (Bin Won), surprisingly complex. Especially for a film whose plot — a mentally challenged young man who still lives with his mother is accused of murdering a young girl; the mother tires of the police response to the case and takes the investigation, and justice, into her own hands — sounds a lot like a Lifetime TV movie.
Not that there aren’t more new twists to Mother’s plot. I won’t give away any spoilers, but sexting, pesticide, and jugs of home-brewed liquor all figure in prominently in this sometimes noir-ish whodunnit. And yet, while sufficiently surprising, the plot doesn’t hold a pair of freshly laundered knickers to Bong’s mastery of tone throughout the film. The unpredictable hairpin changes in tone that made The Host seem like a filmic game of ping-pong are gone, but the familiarity of the plot gives Bong the room to work slowly and subtly, squeezing unexpected moods and tones out of familiar archetypes.
None of this would be possible without lead Hye-ja Kim, whose “Mother” recalls but never imitates the intensity of Ellen Burstyn’s role in Requiem for a Dream. In fact, she one-ups it. Yet Kim isn’t trying to get your eyes to water. Mother isn’t just a detective in her son’s case; she’s a very active participant, and the desperate acts she undertakes for her son’s sake are heartbreaking. But unlike so many previous portrayals of maternal instinct gone extreme, she’s never pitiable. Like The Host, a pipsqueak by monster-movie standards, Mother is much more intimidating that her physicality would suggest. In fact, she’s downright fearsome, even (or especially) when she’s smiling sincerely at her son: the love is there, but so is a constant reminder of just what she’s capable of (a lot). Who needs a CGI monster when you have that kind of facial fireworks?
Plenty of tales of motherhood gone awry focus on self-sacrifice without much attention to the “self.” Thankfully, Mother takes a different approach. It’s Kim and Bong’s ability to keep Mother’s fierce, ambivalent strength intact as she descends into morally gray, then pitch black, territory that makes the film both a welcome addition to the list of stories dealing with darker, sadder motherhoods and a necessary revision to the trope of desperate maternal love.