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July 20, 2009 | by  | in Film |
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I’ve recently taken to telling any oblivious and uninterested passer-by I make eye contact with that the best films are currently coming out of South Korea. With films like Attack the Gas Station!, Secret Sunshine, Memories of Murder, The Host, JSA: Joint Security Area and Oldboy coming out of that little peninsula, South Korea is rapidly making a name for itself as a producer of smart, effective, stunning films that play with genres and characters to startlingly good effect. It’s no surprise then that the New Zealand Film Festival’s Korean contingent is especially large this year, and among the six films in the lot, the one that’s been garnering the most attention is Bong Joon-ho’s latest, slow-burning thriller Mother.

The man responsible for rip-roaring monster film/family dramedy/cutting social satire The Host, Bong Joon-ho returns to the style and genre he perfected in based-on-true-events crime drama Memories of Murder with this tale of an incredibly devoted mother who fights for her mentally-handicapped son’s freedom, convinced he isn’t guilty of the murder of a schoolgirl that he’s been convicted of. Bong doesn’t waste time getting to this plotline, allowing one exciting and darkly humorous opening sequence involving a hit-and-run and university professors to set the film’s slightly irreverent and deceptively dark tone before Do-Joon, the aforementioned son, gets arrested and carted off to prison.

Mother does get a little bit flabby and lethargic at that point, as we follow the attempts of the mother, Hye-ja, to get her son freed through use of the legal system; however, this is but a setup for the heart of the film, that being Hye-ja’s committed and single-minded quest to put together the evidence and exonerate her son by herself. Once Bong hits this section of the film, we are privy to a young director in his prime. Clever and stylish in his execution and presentation of the labyrinthine plot, the sheer beauty and tranquility of some of the shots, contrasted with the masterful creation and maintenance of high tension in the more intense scenes, present Bong as someone whose visual flair is thankfully matched by his ability to play with genre expectations and make us react exactly the way we should to the material.

However, Bong’s direction and screenplay are not the stars this time around. Rather, Bong’s leading lady, Korean television star Kim Hye-ja, is undoubtedly the best thing about this thriller. Kim fully inhabits the role of the tenacious mother, her performance a stunning, believable, utterly human portrayal of a woman who would do anything for her son, no matter what. She keeps the film locked in reality as the story becomes more sensational and Hitchcockian, and as the film continues, it’s clear that anyone else would not be able to bring what she brings to the role.

Mother isn’t up there with Bong’s best—but then, when compared to the intelligent, exciting brilliance of The Host and the slow-burning intensity of Memories of Murder, very few films would be. It is, however, a tightly-wound, sublimely satisfying thriller of the highest order, with one of the best performances of the year that will not be nominated for an Oscar because it’s in a film that has subtitles and isn’t French.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Written by Bong Joon-ho & Park Eun-kyo
With Bin Won, Ku Jin and Kim Hye-ja
Showing as part of the International Film Festival 2009

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