IMDB says... A mother desperately searches for the killer that (sic) framed her son for a girl's horrific murder.
The 73rd Virgin says... This Korean hybrid of Twin Peaks, Psycho, and Memento is amazingly original and entertaining, all on its own. Director Joon-ho Bong made the toweringly great political monster movie The Host a few years back and that’s all the recommendation I needed.
We begin at the moment Mother finally separates from reality. Her hand movements perfectly re-create the same movements she made moments before while doing the unthinkable.
Mother has one son named Do-joon who has “eyes like a deer”, behavioral problems, and short-term memory loss. He is not a brave young man struggling with his affliction; he is a pain in the ass, and Mother is his chief enabler. As the story begins Do-joon has been grazed by a hit-and-run driver in a black Mercedes-Benz. His dodgy friend Jin-tae surmises that the only place a black Mercedes could be going in this town is to the country club, so away they go seeking revenge. Director Bong (if I’m using Korean names correctly) drops in a dozen little clues and red herrings that will resurface later. Do-joon does not like being called “retard”.
Mother is so well known to the police that eventually a detective looks up and says, “here she comes”, as she drifts from desk to desk leaving little bribes of drinks and gifts for all the policemen. Mother is a low level employee at a ratty little medicinal shop somewhere in South Korea. She does some unlicensed acupuncture on the side for friends and clients. Father is never mentioned. In an oddly wrenching scene she flashes back to when little Do-joon was about five and she attempted murder-suicide by sharing some pesticide with him. That said, now she is utterly devoted to him, even feeding him broth or tea while he stands at a wall and urinates. If this were only about Oedipal urges, it would be only run-of-the-mill creepy.
This is not run-of-the-mill. File under “disturbing images”.
All this is leading somewhere. One night while waiting for his friend, Jin-tae, Do-joon gets drunk and begins following and gently taunting a young girl through a dark maze of sidewalks. At some point she unexpectedly ducks into a dark doorway with a strange sudden sense of purpose – she’s not running – and the director uses David Lynch’s trick of slowly bringing the camera in on the dark doorway while the soundtrack hums ominously. For Lynch, this means entry into another reality; for this movie it means short-term memory loss. We will return Rashomon-style to the scene a few times.
The next morning it’s Twin Peaks all over again as local detectives sip coffee and ponder the young girl’s body draped over a railing while discussing when their last murder case was. From clues left earlier they know that Do-joon was nearby and breezily arrest him and get him to sign a coerced confession. Only Mother and the audience think he is innocent.
She hires the most expensive lawyer in town and follows him around an all-you-can-eat buffet and then takes him to see Do-joon in jail where he is busy doing their little acupressure exercise to improve his memory. I can’t overstate how much fun it is to watch this movie as each tiny detail comes into focus. Notice while the attorney loads his plate with the lunch she is paying for, she is busily chasing around two cherry tomatoes with chopsticks on her own plate.
Later she spills a bottle of water near a sleeping suspect and Bong lovingly films the advancing edge of the water across the floor to where it just b-a-r-e-l-y reaches his sleeping fingertips.
There is a whole other story about the murdered girl, Ah-jung. In fluid flashbacks we discover that she lived with an insane grandmother and made ends meet any way she could, including servicing old men. The scenes of all her classmates reminiscing and laughing are just cold.
A great deal of dramatic time and effort is well spent establishing Ah-jung’s friendship with yet another young girl who hacks her phone to automatically take pictures of her clients. They call it the pervert phone. The pictures on the phone, of course, lead to several more red herrings including the one that will take us back around to the beginning of the movie where Mother is dancing alone in a field.
Even after Mother tries to shift the blame to Jin-tae, he shows a remarkable natural affinity for the more muscular and confrontational aspects of detective work, smashing in one suspect’s teeth while Mother listens in.
I’m not revealing too much by observing that the final scene is one of the most liberatingly weird I’ve ever seen. She gets on a tour bus full of old ladies, performs acupuncture on herself, and then dances madly with the others down the aisle of the bus. Bong and/or his cinematographer shoot most of the scene in silhouette from a separate moving vehicle through the windows of the moving bus with the setting sun in the background. Several times I could see the camera searching for Mother in frame, but I didn’t care. Every home movie-birthday party-soccer game-picnic-cinematographer will be inclined to say “I could’ve done that”, but let’s face it, we never did.
I wish I could crawl in Bong’s head and know for certain why in this fine early scene, he creates a silent female character whose only job is to look tough, put out a cigarette, and slap. Is she us? I hope so. The camera movement keeps us glued.
Courtesy of the Tsarnaeva brothers and their delightful biologicals we’ve received a great big cultural bolus dose of the old adage (that I can’t seem to reference from anywhere on the web), “young men are the same the world over; what shapes society is the women and old men”. Boy, are we in trouble.
Happy Mothers’ Day!!