One of the more anticipated titles in this year’s AFI fest was Mother (Madeo), subject of excited word of mouth from Cannes, Toronto and Karlovy Vary, and the fourth film from South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho (The Host). Its opening, with an old woman walking slowly through then dancing in a field, has little to do with what follows, but does introduce the film’s gentle semi-absurdist sense of humour and the captivating presence of Kim Hya-ja. Her performance is central to the movie, as the title suggests, and she is mesmerizing without a jot of overplaying or sympathy-begging, in her search for the perpetrator of the crime for which her slow-witted son has been lazily convicted (Won Bin, also excellent).
Helped by superb photography from Hong Kyung-Pyo, Bong pulls off an impressive interweaving of comedy and tension; there are several excellent lip-biting sequences, and a fine and varied score (by Lee Byeong-woo) is of great help, and the film is shot through with a distinctly Lynchian lid-lifting on the seamy underbelly of small-town life, via a Chandlerian gallery of questionees/suspects.
More fundamental than the detective element, however, the characterisations and performances of the mother-son relationship incorporate a certain moral queasiness that builds to an uncomfortably complex head, and this lends unexpected weight to the film which even without it would be completely riveting – and entertaining – from start to finish.