Mother (“Madeo”) (Blu-ray)
Who says there are no original films? The Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho mashes up familiar genres in a unique style resulting in movies that start routinely, but quickly veer off into the unknown. In The Host, he reinvented the creature feature by interweaving it with an extended family drama and a bizarre brand of slapstick comedy. In Mother, he cast Kim Hye-ja, a beloved and popular TV star, in a role that appeared to echo the nurturing characters for which she was known but gradually became something else. The film, Mother, is equal parts police procedural, film noir and, for lack of a better term, soap opera. There’s no one word to describe the result, but it’s spellbinding.
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Film Length: 129 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: Korean DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Theatrical Release Date: May 28, 2009 (South Korea); Mar. 12, 2010 (U.S.)
Blu-ray Release Date: July 20, 2010
In a vast empty field, a middle-aged woman – the Mother of the title – wanders through the tall grass. When she reaches the foreground, she pauses. Then she does something completely unexpected.
Cut – literally. The Mother is chopping herbs in the shop where she plies her trade as an apothecary dispensing traditional herbal remedies. (She also offers acupuncture on the sly, because she’s unlicensed.) All the while, she keeps a watchful eye on her 27-year-old son, Do-joon (Won Bin), who is horsing around across the street with his friend Jin-Tae (Jin Goo), an overgrown delinquent whom the Mother doesn’t trust.
The problem is that Do-joon is what people call “simple”. He has a sweet face but the mind of a child, and his Mother looks out for him as if he were still five years old (which, in many ways, he is). At the moment, Do-joon is so preoccupied playing with a dog and waving to his Mother that he doesn’t notice the Mercedes barreling down the street, and it knocks him over.
The Mother runs shrieking from her shop, but Do-joon is unharmed. Jin-Tae, however, is furious at the arrogance of the driver, who never even slowed. With Do-joon in tow, he tracks the Mercedes to a local golf course, where they confront the occupants, a group of professors. The incident lands everyone in the police station, but it reveals important bits of information. First of all, Do-joon’s memory is malleable and easily fluenced, and Jin-Tae is perfectly willing to use that to his advantage. Second, Do-joon reacts violently when anyone calls him a “retard”. And third, one of the local policemen, Je-mun (Yoon Jae-Moon), who is about the same age as Do-joon and Jin-tae, is the practical sort of small town cop who tries to work things out among the inhabitants. (We will later learn the the Mother watched him grow up.)
That evening, Do-joon goes to meet Jin-Tae at local bar called “Manhattan”, but Jin-Tae never shows. Do-joon drinks too much and hits on every woman in sight, young or old. Jin-Tae has been teasing him that he’s never slept with a woman, and Do-joon isn’t even sure what that means.
At closing time, the bar owner throws him out, and Do-joon staggers home through empty streets. When he spots a schoolgirl with a backpack, he begins to follow her. Suddenly she disappears into a dark alley, and a chunk of concrete comes flying out. The next thing we know, Do-joon is home and climbing into bed with Mother.
The following morning, the body of the schoolgirl, whose name is Moon Ah-Jung (Na Mun-hee), is found draped over a parapet above the alley where Do-joon saw her disappear. Next to the body is a golf ball that Do-joon picked up during the fracas with the hit-and-run professors. He wrote his name on it while sitting in the police station. It’s the first murder within memory in this small town, and it becomes a media sensation.
Do-joon is arrested. (The arrest, like most things in a Bong Joon-ho film, is not routine.) The Mother is frantic. She insists on her son’s innocence, but no one believes her. She appeals to the cop she knows, Jee-mun, reminding him of times she was kind to him as a boy, but he tells her the case is closed. The Mother now has no choice but to solve the mystery of Moon Ah-Jung’s murder on her own, if she wants to free her beloved son.
The Mother’s relentless pursuit of the truth takes many twists and turns, and it would spoil the film to reveal too much. She hires the best lawyer she can find, who quickly evaluates the case as a loser and proceeds accordingly. Some of the lawyer’s scenes would be hilarious, if the stakes weren’t so high. The Mother also conducts her own investigation of Jin-tae, of whom she has never approved, and the inquiry leads to a search for the murdered girl’s cell phone, which might have relevant information.
She also attends Moon Ah-jung’s funeral, where the Mother’s appearance causes a stir, but an even greater scene is created by the dead girl’s only surviving relative, a bizarre grandmother called a “witch” by everyone, who is perpetually drunk on rice wine and seems to know something. All the while, the Mother keeps visiting her imprisoned son, imploring him to try as hard as he can to recall anything about that night. Ultimately, Do-joon does dredge up memories, but they’re not about the night of the murder. They’re about his childhood, and the Mother is shocked and appalled at what her son remembers.
Director Bong Joon-ho says in the documentary about the making of Mother that the actress came before the film. Like most of his contemporaries, he grew up watching Kim Hye-ja play saintly mothers on TV. (I remember reading somewhere that she was “the Donna Reed of Korea”, which is probably too dated a reference to carry sufficient weight.) As an adult and a filmmaker, he wanted to have her explore motherhood from a new angle, and indeed Mother flips the very idea of maternal devotion sideways. Bong has said that he wanted the film to feel “like in the heart of a fireball”. His famous star obliged, giving an intensely focused performance in which a mother’s love is carried to such extremes that it becomes a form of madness. (The actress has said that she identified so powerfully with her character that, by the middle of the shoot, just looking at Won Bin, the actor playing her son, made her weep.)
The film is densely packed with incident such that, on a first viewing, it’s all you can do to keep up with the rapidly developing plot. But on subsequent viewings, which the film amply rewards, you’re pulled deeper into the rocky emotional terrain. It’s a strange place and harshly beautiful, but it’s not always a comfortable one.
Mother was South Korea’s submission for the 2010 foreign language Oscar, and I suspect it was simply too bizarre to make it to the final round. The ultimate winner, Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes, is also a police procedural, but it was made by a director with experience working on the Law and Order franchise, where they know how to reach neater resolutions. At one point in the disc’s supplements, Bong says that he himself never fully understands his own films, and it’s a refreshingly frank admission. When the film concludes, with a scene echoing that opening shot in the grassy field, you sit there pondering everything you’ve just seen – and not because the film is incoherent or badly made. Quite the opposite. If you open yourself to it, the film so effectively conveys the intensity of an all-consuming love without reason or limit that you’re forced to ask yourself whether, after all, that kind of love is a good thing.
The photography of Mother is richly detailed, but, as more fully described in the special features, the filmmakers wanted a soft, natural look that would distinguish the film from the harsher digital style that is becoming popular. Although the film was shot with anamorphic lenses, the lenses were carefully chosen to achieve the intended look, and there is none of the typical distortion or “flaring” often associated with anamorphic photography. Instead, what’s captured in the frame is a natural image that’s slightly intensified, so that it’s vivid but not overly so. (The emotional decor is already so baroque it doesn’t need further ornamentation.) Most indoor scenes are lit from identifiable sources that emanate from outside, further heightening the sense of naturalism. Colors are varied but realistic.
The transfer on Magnolia’s Blu-ray reproduces the film’s photography with fidelity and black levels that nicely capture fine detail, even in shadows. Do-joon’s late night walk is a good example, as is the Mother’s investigation of a dwelling where she must suddenly seek concealment inside a cupboard. Long shots establishing figures in a landscape provide an appreciation for this Blu-ray’s ability to convey the scale of director Boon’s vision.
Mother does not have an elaborate sound mix, but it’s an effective one. It provides a general sense of environment appropriate to each setting – the street by day and night, a field, a police station, a bar – and little else is necessary. The distinctive musical score, with its carefully composed motifs for each major character, is the dominant presence, along with the dialogue, which I am in no position to evaluate. This front-heavy mix is nicely delivered by the DTS lossless track.
Unless otherwise indicated, all special features are standard definition with an aspect ratio of 4:3 and in Korean with English subtitles.
Making of Mother (1:30:35). Although this lengthy documentary takes it time and might benefit from some trimming, it offers an unusually detailed “backstage” look at the workaday task of making a film. It consists primarily of extensive on location footage with director Bong working closely with his actors, primarily lead actress Kim Hye-Ja as the Mother, on minute nuances of performance and line readings. One of the attractions of the project for Kim was that she wanted a director who would challenge her, after many years as a reigning star whom directors would simply watch and applaud. The documentary shows Bong repeatedly pushing Kim for adjustments in her performance and doing many takes. (After wrapping one scene, he tells Kim that he’ll use either take 16 or take 30.) Kim tells an interviewer at one point that she doesn’t mind being fatigued on a set; she only minds being unsuccessful at getting something expressed that she feels inside her.
The location footage is intercut and overlapped with interviews with Bong, Kim and numerous other cast and crew. A recurrent motif is that many of them talk about their own mothers. Song Sae-Beauk, who plays a cop with particular skill in martial arts, recounts how his mother came to see the film expecting that her son would have only a line or two and was thrilled to discover that his part was much bigger. She saw the film repeatedly, bringing all her friends. But the most interesting reaction was that of director Bong’s mother, who first saw the film at Cannes. Afterward, she would say only that her son must have worked very hard on the movie; she would say nothing else.
Music Score (15:17). Composer Lee Byung-woo explains how he settled on the recurring motifs for the main characters, with special emphasis on the memorable Latin-flavored theme associated with the Mother. Footage from the recording sessions is included.
Supporting Actors (14:33). Director Bong Joon-ho discusses his casting choices for key supporting parts, including the son Do-joon, his friend Jin-tae, the cop Je-mun and the victim, Moon Ah-jung. In some instances, Bong saw and liked an actor in auditions for a previous film, but didn’t think the actor fit any part in that film. But when the right part came along, the director remembered.
Cinematography (9:12). In an interview, cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo discusses the photographic style of Mother. Hong does into detail regarding the choice to shoot the film in 2.35:1 ratio, and even to use a specific brand of anamorphic lens. Hong’s perspective is an interesting one, because he describes how he find himself reacting against the look of digital filmmaking and attracted to a more traditional “analog” style of imagery.
Production Design (11:48). Interviews with producer Seo Woo-sik, production designer Ryu Seong-hie and cinematographer Hong describe the arduous task of “assembling” the small town in which Mother takes place. Because director Bong had such specific images in mind for each scene, no one location would serve, and the film had to be shot all over South Korea, as teams of scouts brought back photographs from various locations so that a suitable setting could be found for each major sequence.
A Look at Actress Kim Hye-Ja (9:23). The title is a misnomer, because only the first minute or so specifically relate to Mother’s lead actress. The bulk of this featurette recapitulates aspects of the film’s production already covered elsewhere.
Behind the Scenes (6:51). A montage of rehearsal, on-set, location and interview footage, much of it very entertaining.
Trailers. The disc contains two “international” trailers in Korean with subtitles; they are both 2.35:1 standard definition, centered in a 4:3 frame. Both are superior to the U.S. trailer, which is not included but can be found at Magnolia’s website; it gives too much away. At startup, the disc plays trailers (in HD) for The Warlords, The Eclipse, Ondine, George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead and HDNet and HDNet Movies; these can be skipped with the top menu or chapter forward buttons and are also available from the special features menu.
BD-Live. When I first inserted the disc, I thought that Magnolia had finally posted BD-Live content, because I was prompted to download a small “update”. But no – selecting this option still produced the familiar message: “check back for updates”.
On this forum and elsewhere, it’s common to lament the death of creativity in filmmaking, as American studios churn out sequels and remakes. But filmmaking is bigger than Hollywood, and Blu-ray makes world cinema widely available at a level of quality equal (and in some cases superior) to what most art house venues can provide. Original, challenging and provocative cinema is out there, if one is willing to look. Mother is an exceptional example.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub
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