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Where EAST meets the Northwest

UNHEALTHY ATTACHMENT. Mother, a film by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, screens February 23 as part of the 33rd Portland International Film Festival. The film features "Mother," a widowed apothecary and acupuncturist (played by South Korean television star Kim Hye-ja, pictured) who cares for her mentally handicapped adult son, Do-joon, in a rural village. (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

From The Asian Reporter, V20, #7 (February 23, 2010), page 13.

Bong Joon-ho moves from monsters to motherhood with new thriller

Mother

Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Produced by Barunson and CJ Entertainment

Distributed by Magnolia Pictures

Screening February 23 at 6:00pm at the

Northwest Film Centerís Whitsell Auditorium

By Allison Voigts

After splattering screens worldwide with his 2006 monster-movie hit The Host, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho returns with a different sort of creature, albeit just as fearsome, in Mother, playing at the 33rd Portland International Film Festival.

"Mother" is a widowed apothecary and acupuncturist (played by South Korean television star Kim Hye-ja) who cares for her mentally handicapped adult son, Do-joon (Won Bin), in the rural village where they live. She feeds him soup and medicine, sleeps in his bed, and keeps a watchful eye on him as he plays outside her shop. When Do-joon is nearly hit by a car in the filmís opening scenes, Mother races to his rescue, barely acknowledging that she slices off a bit of her finger in her haste.

But when a local schoolgirl winds up murdered, and the village police make Do-joon their prime suspect, Mother canít stop the inept detectives from hauling her beloved son to jail. As Do-joon passes his time in prison, indifferent to his motherís tearful visits, she hatches a plan to track down the real killer with the help of Do-joonís hoodlum friend, Jin-tae.

As the crime drama unfolds, Do-joonís mother probes the darker side of small-town life, encountering slimy legislators, promiscuous teenagers, vengeful mourners, and drunken grannies. The motherís psychological frenzy matches the quickening pace of the plot, and her behavior evolves from embarrassing to atrocious as the clues fall into place.

The embodiment of ferocious maternal instinct, Mother bears more and more resemblance to that disfigured force of nature in The Host. Bong seems to suggest that, like the monster in his previous film, Mother is a beast created by the carelessness of the world, meting out punishment to the deserving and the undeserving alike.

This makes Mother a difficult character for the viewer to engage; her unhealthy devotion to her son is unappealing from the beginning, and the action she takes to win his freedom is downright horrifying. Bong seems to enjoy making the audience squirm with discomfort as Mother cleans a spot where Do-joon urinated or hides in the closet while a young couple has sex.

Her motive in springing Do-joon from jail at first seems selfless, but as the film progresses Bong allows the viewer to question whether Mother might be acting entirely out of selfishness. Do-joon, whose memory fades in and out, midway through the film conveniently recalls an instance when his mother did not act in his best interest. Or is Mother the only sacrificial individual in a village full of self-interested characters?

While this approach makes the film an interesting feat of both directing and acting, watching the 129-minute Mother is less than pleasurable. Bong risks alienating fans of The Host, a film featuring slick effects and a plucky young heroine; however, Mother has made appearances at numerous international film festivals, including the Cannes Film Festival last year.

The film is beautifully shot in pale colors, alternating between close-ups of Motherís haggard face and vistas of wind-swept fields in which her figure appears small and insignificant. She wanders in a daze through moody rainstorms and dense groves of rustling trees. But lurking beneath this landscape, and Motherís frailty, is an unstoppable brutality that haunts Bongís cinematic creations.

Mother is playing as part of the 33rd Portland International Film Festival on Tuesday, February 23 at 6:00pm in the Northwest Film Centerís Whitsell Auditorium, located at 1219 S.W. Park Avenue. For more information, or to order tickets, call (503) 276-4310 or visit <www.nwfilm.org>.