I've seen three and a half Bong Joon-ho films now -- counting his segment of Tokyo! -- and I'm increasingly impressed. Memories of Murder (2003) was a superior police procedural, and The Host (2006) was an absolutely amazing monster movie, that -- like the best 1950s monster movies -- had a little something to say about humans as well. Watching Bong's newest film, Mother (13 screens), I began to appreciate his method of constantly juggling two ideas, sometimes opposing ideas, sometimes in the same shot.
In one scene, mother (Kim Hye-ja) feeds her son, a twenty-something, possibly developmentally disabled man, Do-jun (Weon Bin) a bowl of broth. She does this while he's urinating against a concrete wall. Essentially, one liquid goes in at the top, and another liquid comes out the bottom. This mother can feed her son everything, food, energy, wisdom, and she has absolutely no control over where it goes or how it comes out. It's a pretty startling image.
Eventually, there's a murder and Do-jun is the prime suspect. Confused and hounded, he even signs a confession, which is good enough for the cops. Mother -- who is given no other name -- decides to conduct her own investigation, as obviously, her baby boy could not possibly have done it. In some scenes, she's like a lioness, mustering up powers previously unknown to protect her offspring, and at other times, she's totally helpless, completely at the mercy of others because of this exact same mother love.
Bong can also pull off this duality with his individual shots. In an early sequence, Do-jun and his best friend Jin-tae (Jin Goo) head to a golf course to find the owners of a car that clipped Do-jun in the street. Tracking the offenders down, the boys chase after their golf cart. A fight follows, with some golf clubs changing hands, some wrestling, and some struggling in the sand trap. Bong's camera moves during all this, making excited juts forward into the fray, and then pausing and moving sideways as if suddenly struck with the realization, and the reality, of the violence. That he conveys both emotions with a single camera move is extraordinary.
Oddly enough, Mother plays a little like a combination of Bong's two other well-known features. It's a police procedural, focusing on the details of the mother's investigation, tracking down a cell phone, discovering the reason that the cell phone is a hot property, finding witnesses, etc. It's also something of a monster movie, with mother herself as a kind of monster. She's really capable of anything in the defense of her boy, and in a way she's scarier than any of the cops, witnesses, denizens of the underworld, and even the potential murderers. At the film's beginning she rushes to Do-jun's side after an accident, having sliced her finger on a cutting board in the process. Do-jun finds that he's smeared with blood and it takes a minute to figure out that it's mother's blood.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, Bong also gives his movie at least two possible endings, and does not give us a clue as to which one is "true." Both endings contribute to a haunting final shot, which is both lovingly placid and simmering with guilt and horror.