Maternal Instinct

Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy

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Near the end of Bong Joon-ho's film "Mother," Hye-ja (Kim Hye-ja) emerges from a burning shack in the remote countryside. A close-up shot of her face reveals a vestige of forlornness. Bong quietly cuts to a sea of woodlands, and Hye-ja's figure merges with the barren expanse.

Such moments of muted perversity abound in "Mother," the latest work by one of South Korea's foremost modern filmmakers. A tame hit-and-run accident introduces us to 27-year-old Do-joon (Won Bin), a mentally challenged pretty boy who lives with his mother in an unidentified South Korean township. Slouched and dopey, Do-joon wanders around town on a whim, occasionally getting chastised by authorities for his oafish escapades.

His blissful ignorance stands in stark contrast with Hye-ja's fussy austerity. In a script he co-authored with Park Eun-kyo, Bong employs deft strategies to introduce his principal characters and their surrounding community, generating a cycle of events that feels both naturalistic and oddly comical.

The quaint atmosphere dissipates when the body of a dead girl is found hanging over a rooftop, sending both investigators and denizens into a speculative frenzy. Based on an incriminating golf ball discovered at the scene of the murder, detectives detain Do-joon, who dimwittedly signs a confession. Enraged and saddened by this turn of events, Hye-ja storms around town looking for the killer in an attempt to clear her son's name. As the film shifts to her perspective, Bong's narrative transforms into a spiraling tale of deception and vanity reminiscent of Hitchcock at the height of his powers.

Bong's simultaneous adherence to and rejection of genre conventions imbues "Mother" with formidable complexity. The director's unique brand of film language works wonders here, creating a neo-noir palette that's reinforced through looming close-ups and expansive long shots.

Supplemented by Lee Byung-woo's beautiful orchestral score, a host of finely calibrated environmental sounds add to the film's ambience: raindrops falling on rooftops and windows, rustling leaves, soft background voices. The technical achievements contribute strongly to Bong's idiosyncratic vision of a society where good and evil are ultimately accentuated by shades of gray.

While its small-town murder mystery plot carries traces of Bong's 2002 policier "Memories of Murder," "Mother" seems to narrow its focus more on Hye-ja, the film's eponymous matriarchal figure. Portrayed by Korean TV veteran Kim in a monumental performance, the mother's misunderstood primal instincts recalls the monster that haunted Bong's 2006 "The Host." Determined at all costs to fight Do-joon's incarceration, she undergoes dramatic transformations. "You and I are one," Hye-ja declares to Do-joon during a jail visit, expressing a maternal instinct that feels at once poignant and disturbing.

Like in all of Bong's films, the third act of "Mother" renders it virtually unclassifiable. Beneath its psychological thriller facade, the film teases us with a panoptic critique of small-town society and then retracts it in favor of a morally uncertain denouement. It's a measure of Bong's belief in the feverish possibilities of cinema that his statement still provokes in the most dazzling of ways.

There is nothing more beautiful than ambiguity, something Bong seems to suggest when he directs our gaze to his wretched matriarch one last time as she gyrates serenely into a self-invoked purgatory.

David Liu is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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