Bong Joon-ho’s sombre follow-up to the frenetic and adrenaline-filled The Host (2006) deals with some stark subject matter. However, there are some admirable streaks of black humor in the story. Bizarre sequences of Kim Hye-ja dancing as the titular mother act as book-ends for the beginning and end of the narrative. They are indicators of the ever-so-slightly comical atmosphere that accompanies the tragedy, drama and twists that unfurl in the rest of the film. As a result, this is not quite Memories of Murder (2003), but is almost as gripping.
Kim’s unnamed character is introduced as a doting and overprotective parent to Do-joon (Won Bin), a mentally challenged and troublesome youth. The blame for Do-joon’s frequent scrapes with the law is usually placed on his friend, Jin-tae (Jin Ku). However, it is often implied that his mother is just as unhinged as her son: this makes for a murky context to the murder of young schoolgirl, which Do-joon is circumstantially implicated in and convicted of. His mother is determined to find out the truth, as she refuses to believe that this is the case.
This leads to some initially amusing scenes that she stumbles into, but they are still contrasted with a tense atmosphere and a gloomy color palette – where both day and night are tinged with blue. A perfect example is from early on in the mother’s investigations. She is convinced that Jin-tae is the culprit, and sneaks into his home. She is forced to hide when he returns with a young girl, and is forced to witness their naked embraces. After finding a golf club with a red mark on it, she decides to sneak out and run to the police. The typical embarrassment and humor that fills these sorts of scenes is swiftly followed by sympathy for the mother. Jin-tae has images showing his girlfriend had kissed the club while wearing lipstick and the mother is forced to pay up as an apology. However, she is still determined to prove her son’s innocence, and Jin-tae recognizes this. He decides later to help the mother, after she slowly puts together evidence gathered from Jin-tae’s other friends and the mother’s own acupuncture clients. Jin-tae perhaps does not mock or punish the mother harshly for her actions because he also believes that Do-joon is innocent, and maybe would have behaved similarly himself.
The film constantly poses a question to the audience throughout this scene and others – what would they do in this situation? Do-joon’s mother does not just protest his innocence to the police and an ignorant lawyer, but also at the dead schoolgirl’s funeral. Again, this sparks confrontations between the mother and the mourners which verges on farce, but it never becomes this because of the mother’s conviction and determination.
Tragedy is ultimately emphasized by the film’s conclusion. Mother was originally promoted (in the UK, at least) as a thriller about a mother determined to find those responsible for her son’s dire circumstances. This implies that she goes on the warpath against the actual culprits, but this does not happen until the very last scenes of the film. Here, both the blackly comic and grimly realistic actions of the mother finally add up to surreal melancholy. The audience is forced to watch as she descends into a course of action from which it will be impossible to save herself. The stark realization of her fate is also firmly illustrated by Bong’s faultless composition of his actors, props and scenes.
The epilogue leads to the second dancing scene of the film, bringing the story full circle. It also emphasizes one of the earlier lines in the film – “the sin goes around a few times and comes back to me.” Again, this leaves the audience wondering how they would act in a similar situation, while considering the potentially dark consequences of familial love and desperation.