If I tell you the plot of Bong Joon-ho's new film, Mother (2009), without spoilers, you might be tempted to make assumptions. Here it is, for all that it might be worth: Mentally handicapped Do-Joon is arrested for the murder of a young teen-age girl. His mother, completely convinced of his innocence, sets out to clear his name in spite the airtight case the police have assembled. And do you know what? I haven't told you ANYTHING about the movie, because any assumptions you might bring to this particular plot are dead wrong. This movie unfolds with an ever more surprising sequence of events, until it climaxes with a scene that shocks the audience out of their preconceptions completely. It's a dazzling high wire act. In thinking about this movie, it strikes me that this is what Strangers on a Train might have been like had Hitchcock kept Patricia Highsmith's ending. It reminds me, too, of Max Ophuls's The Reckless Moment and of Cornell Woolrich's The Black Angel. It dwells firmly in the same kind of indifferent cosmos. This is film noir at its blackest.
Even more amazing, though maybe not too amazing to filmgoers who have seen the director's other films, is the way it sneaks up on this. The opening movement of this film is a wry social comedy, much as the opening of Memories of Murder is broadly comic. Bong is a humanist, I think, one in love with people and particularly one in love with his characters, but he's not too in love with them that he won't murder his darlings. What's the point of having characters in a thriller if not to put them through the wringer? This movie does that in spades.
At the heart of Mother, oddly enough, is not the crime itself, but rather a jaundiced view of familial relationships. Certainly, our title character's relationship with her son is deep, but it's also completely bonkers. The image of Do-Joon, an ostensibly grown man, sleeping in the same bed with his mother, hand on her breast, speaks volumes about how completely dysfunctional this family is. It's kind of creepy, actually. With this family, as with the family in The Host, the ties that bind aren't necessarily ties of love, so much as they're ties of necessity. Without them tethering these characters together, they would be adrift.
South Korean filmmakers, perhaps more than any others, put a high gloss polish on their films, and Bong is no different. This is a beautiful film to look at. As a plot construction, this is all over the place, providing all kinds of red herrings and narrative dead ends. This would ordinarily be a failing of the conventions of the mystery genre itself, but in this film, they serve as texture. Most of the loose ends tie themselves up eventually, though not in the way that you expect. As a cinematic structure, rather than as a plot structure, this is as pleasing a composition as you could like. The repetition of its opening shot late in the movie provides a satisfying symmetry, even as the implications of it sink in. The last shot of the film, however, is a marvel, in which our heroine finally lets herself become untethered from her son and joins the dance of all the other lunatics in the world. It's set against the sun in the same way as Leatherface's final dance in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The world, it seems, is spinning WAY out of balance.