Bong Joon-ho, in South Korea, is making the movies Hollywood should be making—formally precise and inventive, slyly engaging but never overturning popular genres, directed with sincerity and assurance, juggling tones with vitality, focused on the down and out losers of the world, and telling their stories with a high degree of sophistication and entertainment. One look at Mother, his follow-up to The Host, and one is simultaneously shocked that Bong hasn’t actually gone to Hollywood and that it has taken so long for an American master to be seen outside of our national borders.
Returning to the small town policier melodrama of his best film, Memories of Murder, Mother is formally and conceptually audacious but stumbles in only recognizing the aesthetic and dramatic richness of its scenario and not the emotional or thematic. It packs punch but not depth; Mother dies on the tip of the tongue after being spoken—though it is spoken with energetic pleasure—where The Host and Memories of Murder linger with their rich ambiguity.
It is a ramshackle family, again, impoverished and idiotic, again—a mentally disabled son is accused of a horrible crime and his doting mother takes the investigation in her hands. Mother is chock full of the irony of power, poverty, dementia, and social crime, but it surprisingly does not recognize the extent of its conclusions, which would spoil too much if mentioned here. Suffice to say that, as with Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, a plum concept is mined for simplicities and their aesthetics rather than for the disturbing truths lurking beneath this murderous story of frustration and stupidity. Yet these simplicities are mined long and hard, as Mother is clearly dedicated to actress Kim Hye-ja and runs her down a remarkably crazy path with a truly wondrous and strange finale at its end. But the transformation she undergoes lacks the audacity of Bong’s dramatic-comedy shifts in tone and the beautiful exactness and conception of the filmmaking. Once the symmetry returns, this filmmaker will again be making masterpieces, but wait less for that day than the day either Bong is shown in American multiplexes or American multiplexes show more movies like Bong’s.