In a year that has witnessed uncommonly tough onscreen heroines – whether it be avenging Goth-punk hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, tenacious Ozark cookie Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone, intensely resolute ambiguous agent Evelyn Salt in Salt, or nihilistic school-girl assassin Hit Girl in Kick Ass – none, perhaps, can stand alongside Hye-Ja Kim’s tremendous portrayal of apothecarist and part-time acupuncturist in this extraordinary South Korean import Mother. Her titular matriarch might not have the computer hacking skills of Salander nor death-defying acts of Salt, but on a more realistic level, her astonishing motherly devotion and fearless fortitude simply overpowers any female performances seen this year. It’s a complex, multi-layered, expressionistic work of powerhouse acting, and Kim gives the role full of heart and heartbreak. It’s a peach of a role that could have been easily played by femme fatale prototypes of old Hollywood noir such as Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford.
In a similar vein to Crawford’s Mildred Pierce, Mother is essentially a tale of a mother’s tempestuous crusade to protect her youngling, but the similarities end there. Mother is a more intricate, morally complex beast – a film that boldly swathes several genres yet ends up defiantly unique and singular. It’s a neo-noir murdery mystery with elements of whoddunit, combined with black comedy and social satire, wrapped in a searing melodrama. It’s an ambitious blend, but Bong achieves the perfect mixture effortlessly, just as his previous effort The Host was an eclectic yet brilliant melange of monster horror-movie, dysfunctional family drama and political satire. Here, you barely know what’s happening next, or what the Mother is capable of doing, how far she will go to save her son from a murder trial. What starts as an absurdist, blackly comic portrayal of a family, with the doting mother tirelessly looking after a mentally-challenged son, transforms into a gripping thriller with the Mother sleuthing around à la Miss Marple to find evidence of her son’s innocence. Her investigation slowly reveals the town’s new face, the seedy backstreets, shadowy figures and sexual deviants, like a worthy reminiscence of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and her discover of the truth only unleashes a bigger monster within, as the Mother implodes with self-remorse and guilt, darker than noir itself.
Bong employs a self-conscious portrait of a maternal love in turmoil, forcing us to ask ourselves the limits in which mothers can sacrifice their selves for the sake of their cubs. The opening is a testament to this, where the Mother runs to his son after being accidentally hit by a car, horrified by his bleeding, only to realise it was her own blood after unconsciously slicing her finger whilst cutting herbal leaves moments before the car accident. The maternal instinct kicks in, at the expense of self-inflicted pain. Later, when she’s done an incontrovertible act to silence a crime witness, she plunges into a blind form of regret and guilt that when she meets the new suspected murderer in jail, the first thing she asks of him is whether he has a mother. It’s a heart-wrenching scene that powerfully summarises Mother‘s thesis: acts of selfless love come with a price – mothers who sacrifice their selves end up quietly suffering for the sins of their sons. Watch the tragic final shot. At an acupuncture, the Mother launches into a dance of sorrow to ‘forget the horrible memories of the heart‘. None of this year’s heroines would have learned such technique.
An endlessly fascinating, intelligent work of genre-melding, effortlessly fusing murder mystery with noir thriller and absurdist social satire. Yet above all, there’s a heart-wrenching melodrama about a human tragedy called maternal love, anchored by a tremendous, towering performance by Kim. One of the year’s best films.