After giving free-floating dread a gargantuan, tentacled form in The Host, Bong Joon-ho returns to human-sized monsters in Mother. No less than the toxic leviathan in the director’s previous hit, the film’s middle-aged, unnamed matriarch (Kim Hye-ja) is a roiling force of nature when it comes to her mentally challenged adult son, Do-Joon (Won Bin). A small-town apothecary clerk with a bit of clandestine acupuncture on the side, she’s introduced in a typically Bongian mixture of intensity and near-slapstick: Watching over her son while slicing herbs at the store counter, she rushes to his rescue after a hit-and-run accident and only later, almost as a second thought, notices that she’s damn near cut off her finger. Her familial devotion turns even more extreme once a schoolgirl is found brutally murdered and Do-Joon is hauled to jail as the main suspect. Denied help by the authorities, she sets out to prove her son’s innocence by herself; her amateur sleuthing peels back the village’s skin to reveal a Twin Peaks season’s worth of unwholesome secrets and anguished-promiscuous high schoolers, not to mention a glimpse into the heroine’s own distorted maternal instincts.
Fellow Korean auteur Park Chan-wook would have wrung the Grand Guignol hell out of this plot, but Bong, back in Memories of Murder terrain, is less interested in shocks than in the synergy between the country’s vast fields and the equally mysterious inner landscape of the dazed matriarch making her way across them. Her doting zeal may ultimately seem as monstrous as the crime that she investigates, yet, in its animal force, it towers over the nitwits, shysters, and sad Lolitas crowding the screen. Perversely, Bong views the character’s escalating feelings through a filter of mordant irony, analyzing passion without sharing it; imagine watching Stella Dallas through a thick, bulletproof windshield, and you get a sense of the film’s removed stance. As eccentric a take on genre as Bong’s earlier subversions of the police procedural and the Godzilla smash-a-thon, Mother suffers somewhat from being a melodrama in which the strongest emotion stems from the director’s absurdist scorn for his creations. Still, there’s no denying the power of Kim’s central performance, or Bong’s tremendous stylistic control over the film’s shifts in mood and gallery of dancing fools whose dark stories seem perpetually about to topple into farce.