It's been a while since I've watched a mystery with so many twists and turns, so many thrills, such spellbinding performances, that I'm taken in. Instead of trying to guess whodunnit, looking for the clues, trying to sort out what the twist will be in my head, I was instead transfixed by the amateur sleuth of the title. She fell in and out of danger, made mistakes, bullied police officers, came to conclusions both right and wrong, and danced. Yes, danced -- the film opens with a mesmerizing dance number, not without purpose, that pretty much served as an offer to the Silver Screener to fall in love with cinema once more.
And it worked! For Bong Joon-ho's Mother is a masterful thriller, one of the proud few that not only bamboozled me, but left me gasping, gripping the arms of my chair (apologies to my seatmate), leaning forward as the goose pimples formed on my arms and legs. Anchored by a spectacular performance by Kim Hye-ja, the film follows a long-time widow who gets her Miss Marple on when her son - a dimwit convincingly portrayed by Won Bin - is accused of the murder of a schoolgirl. Helped by neither the careless police nor her forgetful offspring, Mother takes it upon herself to find the truth.
As I say, Hye-ja's performance is breathtaking. Mother is overbearing, caring much too much for her son, their relationship just shy of Oedipal. Her tenacity in proving her son's innocence is, of course, the driving force of the film, and her obsession leads her to actions that are by turns brave, alarming and pathetic. Hye-ja is delicate with her movements, dainty and ladylike, her hands often folded together nervously. Her face can be kind, ruthless, broken....or crazed. It's one of those ingenious performances that manages to balance sincerity with camp. And again, that dance.
Joon-ho has assembled a fine ensemble that can play dark comedy without being ridiculous. Besides Mother and son, we also get the handsome, ne'erdowell friend of the accused (Jin Goo); the well-meaning but tired detective (Yoon Je-moon); the crazed grandmother of the victim (Na Mun-hee); the friend who helps in Mother's sleuthing (Jun Mi-sun); and various villagers, policemen, biddies and schoolgirls. It's like Korea's own St. Mary Mead...though, as Miss Marple would say, "Human nature is very much the same everywhere."
Except for that final, overlong, irritating tracking shot, Joon-ho and cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo make their coverage effective and haunting. Seeing Mother walk from camera left to camera right, a wide expanse of mountain and wheat above, behind, and below her...it would give any cinephile a total filmgasm. "It's just her!" it bellows, an obvious cry, but effective nonetheless. And that sometimes suspenseful, sometimes fun score by Lee Byung-woo, enhances the feel of it all. I caught myself humming the tune bookmarking the film, a sure sign of excellence, right?
Refreshing, suspenseful, and overall glorious. Is it overlong? Mayhaps, but I could easily watch it again.
...which is probably more than I can say for Ridley Scott's OK prequel to the legend of England's most famous outlaw. Funny: I remember genuinely enjoying myself while in the theater, but it's not exactly incredible. It's not as bad as some would have you believe, but it's easily forgettable. That's a real shame, because the film seems to have everything going for it. The actors are fine, the cinematography beautiful, the score memorable and effective. There's nothing really wrong with Robin Hood, per se...but you wouldn't recommend it to people. I keep forgetting I've seen it, even though I remember getting excited at the climactic battle scene, laughing with the Merry Men, and once again appreciating a fine Cate Blanchett performance. But it's all so paint-by-numbers, you know? And the only thing I remember of Russell Crowe is in the trailers. He's good, but he's also slightly miscast.
Wait for HBO.