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Mother (South Korea,2009)

26/08/2011

Director: Joon-ho Bong      Starring: Hye-ja Kim, Bin Won, Ku Jin

There’s nothing like a little miscarriage of justice to provide fuel for a dramatic fire. A crime is comitted, early evidence points to a clear suspect, a suspect the all too lazy police force not only decide must be responsible but cut every corner imaginable in securing their conviction leaving it up to the new prisoner (or a loved one) to gather the evidence that will clear their name. Some might say it is a cinematic staple.

In Mother (or Madeo to give it its original title) young Yoon Do-joon (Bin Won) is the young, simple man who falls foul of the over zealous police investigating the brutal murder of a young girl in this South Korean crime drama and it is left up to his devoted mother (Hye-ja Kim) to get to the bottom of the mystery and secure her son’s release. By any means necessary. Do-joon has learning difficulties and memory problems and as a result is easily influenced by the police into signing a confession that secures his conviction but while in prison he begins to recall more and more about what happened that night, not to mention long repressed memories of his childhood that raise some serious questions about his relationship with his mother.

As the story unfolds it is impossible not to feel the utmost sympathy for Do-joon. His treatment at the hands of the police is absolutely diabolical, made the more so because one of the detectives is an acquaintance of the family and therefore cannot be ignorant of the fact that Do-joon is not mentally competent to undergo the bullying interrogation he is subjected to by the detectives investigating the case. Bin Won’s performance is great, his early buffoonery comes across as amusing in a sad sort of way until, as the situation spirals beyond his control, becoming the source of his suffering. He thankfully manages to stay on the right side of caricature with it when it would have been very easy to overdo the whole simpleton angle and render it implausible.

The film is really more about his mother though and Hye-ja Kim’s understated showing as Do-joon’s put upon but devoted mother is the thing that really drives the movie. Juggling her work in a traditional medicine shop with a sideline in unlicenced acupuncture and the constant struggle to keep Do-joon from being led astray by others has clearly taken its toll on her. She is weary and clearly tired of her duty to her son and yet when the opportunity comes to be relieved of it she doesn’t accept the verdict and instead redoubles her devotion, approaching the task of clearing his name with vigour. It’s really quite touching.

The twists and turns of the plot are well conceived, each new clue opening up a new avenue of investigation and revealing more and more about what transpired. What the police have viewed as straight forward turns out to be far more complex. As Do-joon’s mother digs deeper so does the film’s thematic reach. Society itself is questioned. The exploitation of the poor by the rich, the bias in society that protects the rich and abandons the poor to their fate, human greed, the draw of money and its role as a motivator, the nature of family and friendship. All of these things are examined before the story ends.

Arguably it is a little bit predictable, the miscarriage of justice story line not being a startlingly original one, but it is well written and performed nonetheless and Joon-ho Bong’s portrayal of small town Korean life feels insightful. There is a slight hint at that Lynchian sense of the darker, seedier side of life that runs just below the respectable facade of society which is well handled and some aspects of the story, particularly the life of the victim of the crime, are suitably tragic and at times genuinely touching.

All in all, it’s an interesting little film and one I could have easily missed given the complete lack of attention it appears to have been paid. This is a shame as it is a competently handled drama which manages to maintain a sufficient level of suspense and intrigue throughout, despite what could be considered a rather conventional storyline. Well worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time though.

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