Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
With a raft of glowing reviews and the Best Picture prizes from the Cannes Film Festival and the L.A. Film Critics (thus far), Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is entrenched as one of the best-received movies of 2019. The accolades are richly deserved; this is a wickedly funny, consistently surprising film. If it doesn’t win one of those “Best Ensemble Cast” awards, there is no justice—it’s not just that the actors are good, it’s that they are all working in precisely the same mode, which is no small feat considering the film’s tricky mix of tones. It’s reminiscent of the way the actors in a Lubitsch movie are perfectly in tune with the overall mode of performance.
Needless to say, this moment of Bongmania has been preceded by a scintillating career that ranges from a police procedural (Memories of Murder), a monster movie (The Host), and a post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasia (Snowpiercer). Also needless to say, Bong’s films are available at Scarecrow Video, and will still be available there a year from now, and as long as the blu-rays last.
One of Bong’s most fascinating movies is his 2009 film Mother, which barely fits into any known genre, and which is being revived at the Northwest Film Forum next week. I reprint my review, originally published in the Herald in 2010, and urge you to seek out this unique film.
Maternal love, or at least maternal energy, has rarely been as pointed as it is in Mother, a bizarre new offering from the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. The movie’s a study in parental willpower.
The mother here does not seem to have a name; she’s just Mother, like Anthony Perkins’ mom in Psycho. Mother (played by Kim Hye-ja) must constantly watch out for her grown son (Won Bin), who is not quite right in the head. (The casting apparently has more impact in Korea: Kim is known for her beloved maternal roles on Korean television, while Won is something of a Robert Pattinson-style heartthrob in Asia.)
She runs an extra-legal business in medicinal herbs and acupuncture—none of which can help her son, who keeps getting in trouble because of his simple-mindedness.
At the center of the film is an incident in which a local girl is murdered, her body left hanging over the roof of a small building. The idiot son was seen talking to her shortly before her death, and his inability to answer basic questions about the incident makes him the perfect suspect for the crime.
Which is where Mother goes into high gear. The protective instincts are fully engaged, and the film almost threatens to become a detective story, with Mother barreling around town trying to find out information.
The movie is pitched somewhere between David Lynch-like depths of perversity (this is a strange little town) and out-and-out comedy. Which I guess could describe a David Lynch movie, too.
Director Bong Joon-ho’s previous film was the international monster-movie hit The Host, a decidedly original take on the subject of giant things that slither from rivers. Like that movie, Mother has a tendency to meander, browsing outside its plot and losing its forward motion at times.
If you’re taken by the film’s ferociously twisted main character, this might not matter too much. Bong is illustrating an exaggerated version of motherly devotion, and Kim Hye-ja’s Mother is so wildly determined in her quest that you’ll probably have to sign on just to see what she’s capable of doing next.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.