I was one of the few people who didn’t love-love-love Bong Joon-ho previous film, the monster movie The Host. That one went on way too long in certain areas, so my expectations were measured in anticipation of this one, which was gathering a lot of art-film acclaim, while even the most enthusiastic reviews said it went on too long. Perhaps for this reason I found it moving at a measured clip that didn’t have me bored for a second, while my friend, who hadn’t seen The Host, did find it to drag quite a bit.
We open with Kim Hya-ja as the unnamed mother wandering in an open field of reeds. As music starts up she starts to dance, alone in the field, and this was a nice surprise. We then have a beautiful dusky title shot. I’m on board! Then Mom is in her small shop chopping herbs [this is all happening in South Korea], watching her son, Do-Joon, fooling around with his friend, Jin-Tae, when they are both bumped by a passing car. At that moment Mom cuts herself, running hysterically to ensure that her son is safe, and wailing at the blood he’s losing. She is soon informed that he’s fine, and it’s HER blood. The two boys [they’re in their 20s] figure since the car was expensive, it must be heading for the golf course, and head out there for revenge. They find a similar car, destroy its mirror, then wait all afternoon for the offending party to show up. When they do, the boys chase them in their golf cart and finally have a haphazard fight—all the while you’re waiting to find out that these aren’t the people who hit them at all. In just these few minutes the film has whipped up a tone of off-kilter humor, critical distance from its characters, and the sense that horror could erupt here at any moment. And it manages to maintain this balanced air throughout the film.
Do-Joon wants to go out and meet his friend at a bar. He waits and drinks himself to unconsciousness, finally kicked out. Do-Joon is considered to be incredibly attractive [“His eyes are a work of art” a woman says], but is a simpleton. He ends up following a pretty young girl home, making come-ons to her, before she steps into a dark doorway. We see Do-Joon stand for a while, then fade to the next scene… in which the girl has been murdered and placed on a rooftop in view of the entire town. Do-Joon is taken away by the police… and abruptly has a car accident. This crash ends up meaning nothing in the film, but successfully gives the sense that anything can happen at any moment here, and keeps your mind open to all the directions the story could potentially go in.
Now the focus lands on the mother, who is quite sure that her son couldn’t have been the killer. She attends the funeral of the dead girl, where she is physically attacked by the girl’s sisters. She hires an attorney who doesn’t seem interested in the case, and soon hands her off to a lesser employee. She visits Do-Joon in jail and urges him to remember anything he can—but his mind is impossible to focus. She becomes convinced that his friend, Jin-Tae, is actually responsible, and breaks into his house to locate evidence. Her attorney calls her to a karaoke room where he is surrounded by blasé pretty young girls and two drunk colleagues, to tell her that he’s gotten Do-Joon’s sentence down to four years, which she should be delighted about. Mom realizes that she’ll need to start investigating on her own is she is ever to get anywhere.
From here the story continues its meandering path, stopping to delve into characters that may or may not end up having anything to do with the overall narrative, taking tangents that are very interesting but ultimately don’t serve the focus of the story, and this can either be frustrating of terribly interesting.
As the film goes on new little twists and details are revealed, giving the whole thing some of the trappings of a melodrama, including revelations that turn out to have nothing to do with the plot, but explain character motivations. While the diversions in The Host seemed confusing and off the point to me, now I feel like I get it: These little tangents create a feeling that anything can happen. This film could veer into horror, comedy or melodrama, and each of them would seem entirely comfortable. With each little feint in this direction or that, one also starts projecting the scenario the film will follow, and in most cases it turns out to be wrong. And at this point, a movie that can keep you on your toes and unable to guess what’s coming next is a valuable thing.
As usual I went to my Korean friends at work and discussed the movie with them. They told me that star Kim Hya-ja has been a huge star in Korea for quite a few decades, is essentially the Meryl Streep of South Korea, and that this role is a big departure and play on her image. They told me that there is a powerful stereotype of the Korean mother with an overprotective, too-close relationship with her son, and, as one of them put it: “Her devotion to her son veers into selfishness toward others and may not be the best thing for everyone.” They also told me—and this will make sense only if you see the film—that the bus we see in the final scene is a party bus for Korean mothers to go forget their troubles.
I liked it very much. My friend, who hadn’t seen The Host, liked it, but found it meandering. I was definitely prepared for an unfocused, meandering experience, and ended up finding it consistently engaging, incidents and revelations coming at a well-measured clip, and all the tangents helpful to fill out a larger sociology of this town and the way this crime ripples out and exposes other secrets. So I would definitely go see it, but advise you to just relax, keep your mind open and take things as they happen.
Yes, it’s very rich and sustains an uneasy tension.