Bong Joon-ho's Mother has and will continue to court references to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho for its depiction of an Oedipal relationship gone mad, but the Koren director deserves comparison to the Master of Suspense for successfully mining Hitch's most overlooked asset as the king of the pre-blockbuster era: his humor. Like Hitchcock's films, Mother is immaculately executed and rooted in psychological thriller structures, but the manner in which it toys with outright farce without losing momentum may be its most impressive feat.
The film's first shot encapsulates its combination of unsettling drama and broad comedy. Opening in an establishing shot in a field, Bong's camera captures a woman walking through the tall, dried grass, her blue and purple clothes clashing with the earthen tones around her despite the faded and worn quality of the garments. Wandering closer to the camera, the middle-aged woman stops and looks confused, then she breaks into a slow, awkward dance. Even without context, the moment is tragicomic, the desperation in the actress' (Kim Hye-ja) face mingling with the uncomfortable chuckles elicited from watching a random person dance in such a raw and unexplained fashion.
The unnamed woman is the titular mother to Do-joon, a sweet, mentally disabled young man who spends his days hanging around just across the street from where his mother prepares and sells medicinal herbs. Mostly, though, she just stares at the boy, making sure she keeps track of him and narrowing her eyes when his ne'er-do-well friend, Jin-tae, comes along. As she slices her dried herbs, she grows ever more concerned with Jin-tae and less focused on the blade she's working. Just as Jin-tae starts to take the lad away on some other foolish adventure, a Mercedes Benz strikes Do-joon right as the mother slides her finger too far under the blade. It's a masterfully edited segment that makes you laugh even as you jump from the startle -- you could almost call it shock and guffaw and then send over an exorcist to purge my possessed soul of Gene Shalit's demon.
Do-joon and Jin-tae chase down the hit-and-run driver, finding their way to a golf course where they vandalize the vehicle and hide out on the course waiting for the drivers to come along. When the guilty, upper-middle-class party rolls by on a cart, the boys spring their ambush, but their assault is more childish than anything, tackling the men on the ground and chasing off the wives who attempt to intervene. At the police station, the cops try to settle the matter without charges, canceling out the hit and run and the assault and forcing the lads to pay for the vandalism. The officers' condescending but well-meaning nature toward Do-joon is partially explained when the boy's mother, having heard of the problem, bursts into the station cheerily addressing each of the policemen there by their names and handing them her homemade elixirs. She collects her son and tries to pin all the bad behavior on Jin-tae -- a not entirely unjustified sentiment -- and sets about raising the money to pay the fine.
Everything appears to settle down, until Do-joon goes out drinking one night and the police arrest him the next morning for the murder of a young woman he drunkenly hit on. Suddenly, the police who seemed willing to cut the poor kid some slack now manipulate the dim man into signing a confession that allows them to avoid any expensive investigation. When the mother visits Do-joon in jail, she asks "Why did you do it?" in hysterics, only to reveal that, for her, the "it" in question is sign the confession. The audience might doubt Do-joon's guilt, but the mother won't even consider it. When the cops won't take the measures necessary to do a full forensic investigation, she takes it upon herself to find the evidence to exonerate her son.
Her exploits, as with everything about the film, are humorous, but Bong grounds the absurdity in his elegant direction. My slow introduction to the more popular side of contemporary Asian cinema has been as revelatory as my immersion into its artier side: Bong, like his similar but less satirically honed colleague Park Chan-wook and the Hong Kong maestro Johnnie To, has a keen ability for striking a balance between comedy and dramatic suspense without letting one win out. There's no winking aside to the audience, no cheap indication of what we should laugh at and what we should take seriously. Bong can drop a joke in the middle of a vital scene, giving a lighter boost to the severity while also undercutting the laugh.
Bong's color scheme, especially in the family's home, is blue and distant. The characters live in a city small enough to be a place where everyone knows each other but large enough that no one cares about this. The mother stamps all over the place hunting for clues, willing to incriminate anyone to protect her son and finding people equally willing to let him take the fall even if they themselves are not the ones who murdered the girl.
A creepy chill hangs over the relationship between mother and child, what the Bates clan might have looked like before the mother died and drove poor Norman mad with grief. The mother feeds Do-joon broth as he pees against a wall, and the boy sleeps in his mom's bed, curling up against her and even tangling his legs with hers. As the boy sits in his cell, the mother comes undone from the separation, reacting more frantically than the overprotected boy. An extreme long shot looks down on a ridged graveyard as the mother moves through it, and when Bong cuts to a grieving family at a ceremony there, he gives us just enough space for the horror of recognition to set in before the old woman bursts in and tells the family of the murdered girl that her son is innocent.
As the mother's sanity frays from the pressure, Bong's framing emphasizes the madness without dipping into full surrealism. The whodunit aspects are done with instant time jumps as each person the mother corners a new subject and demands their story, and the instantaneous movement through time recalls Edgar Wright's ingenious circumventing of segues. Bong never has to resort to any major aesthetic shifts to communicate the building madness, rightly judging that Kim's perfectly paced descent into insanity is sufficient to get the point across. She does not walk around the outskirts of town but march through them, her determined face and wild eyes shrinking the mountains and fields around her. Kim is so good that she makes the normal surreal, turning reality into something inadequate to contain her. So desperate is she to exercise her maternal care once more that when Jin-tae, whom she attempted to frame for the murder, hides in the house to confront her when she returns home, the woman offers food to the furious boy before he says anything.
Mother's revelations about the double-edged sword of all-consuming love complicate the film's central relationship and only drive the mother further around the bend. By the time the plot is concluded -- let us not say "resolved" -- the actions she has taken, coupled with her blindness to facts she picked up along her manic investigation, have fractured the woman beyond repair. But Bong's camera remains steady, detached and graceful, objective even in the heights of its subjective fantasy. It is a remarkable achievement, propelling one of the finer films to come ashore in the States this year even higher. I have read some reviews that praise the film's structure, acting and direction to the heavens, only to pull back and say something along the lines of "but it's still just a conventional thriller." Well, obviously it isn't if everything about the film is immaculately executed. Mother may not offer great new insights into the human condition or the oft-mined realm of warped maternal relationships, but it does find a new route to the same destination. Sometimes, that's all you need.