South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho loves to color outside the lines: In Memories of Murder, he balanced a bleak police procedural with unexpected, sometimes uproarious humor (imagine David Fincher's Zodiac crossed with The Odd Couple). In The Host, his best-known film in the United States, a giant-monster movie doubled as the story of a dysfunctional family (think Godzilla by way of Ordinary People).
Mother, Bong's fourth film, continues that unpredictable tradition. The movie is built around a tour-de-force performance by Kim Hye-ja, whose monstrously devoted mama takes her place next to her sisters in Psycho and Mommie Dearest, albeit for entirely different reasons. Mother (she is never named) sells herbs for a living and practices some illegal acupuncture on the side to help ends meet, but everything she does is for the sake of her 27-year-old son Do-joon (Won Bin), who is a little slow in the head, prone to short-term memory loss and often behaves like a 12-year-old.
Mother watches over her son obsessively: She's the only person in the world he has and vice versa ("You and I are one," she tells him). When Do-joon is struck (and relatively uninjured) by a speeding BMW, she's even more rattled than he is. Mother frets about Do-joon's friendship with the shady Jin-tae (Jin Goo), who may not be the best influence on her son. And when a local schoolgirl is found murdered, and Do-joon is arrested for the crime, Mother jumps into action. She will do just about anything to clear her son's name, even though the film keeps us guessing as to whether the young man is guilty.
The plot of Mother makes the picture sound like a grave drama, and on one level it is: Mother's increasingly desperate attempts to help her child are played as seriously as the plight of the two old ladies whose grandsons are linked by a crime in Brillante Mendoza's Lola (which won the grand prize at this year's Miami International Film Festival.) When she starts playing detective, investigating the crime in hopes of clearing Do-joon's name, Mother simultaneously displays great cunning and vulnerability. She's in way over her head, but she doesn't care. Kim's ferocious performance ensures you're always laughing with her and never at her, even as she bungles her way through an investigation that would embarrass Inspector Clouseau.
And just when you think you know where Mother is going, Bong, as is his wont, pushes the film into a different, much darker direction. The movie's utter lack of predictability helps to keep you engaged, even if some of the plot turns are a bit baffling, and the unusual depth and complexity of the characters - the eponymous heroine in particular - give the picture its scalding power. You've never met a mother quite like this one.
Mother (*** out of ****) opens Friday, April 23 at the Regal South Beach in Miami-Dade.