Korean television actress Kim Hye-ja gets a grandiose entrance in Bong Joon-ho’s latest—walking dazedly through a field before busting into some mad (as in insane) gesticulations that would give Norma Desmond pause. The opening credits have barely rolled and she’s already gotten her close-up; sad to say, the film that follows feels comparatively like an afterthought.
Kim plays the unnamed mother of the title, who runs an apothecary and dotes on her mentally challenged son, Do-joon (Bin). They have a queasy relationship, something Bong emphasizes during an early scene in which Mom is so obsessed with keeping her boy in view that she nearly slices her finger off. Blood runs deep in this family and, if you’re familiar with the director’s work (Memories of Murder; The Host), you know there’s a great likelihood that it’s somehow going to be spilled.
Mother does indeed bear this out, though not before spending a laborious amount of time on a murder plot—involving Do-joon and a promiscuous schoolgirl—with narrative twists that thud like a two-by-four to the skull. Bong is so concerned with whodunit that his creaky genre mechanics diminish Kim’s determined performance: She’s often shunted to the side of the action, especially when Do-joon’s friend (Jin) comes forth to do some teeth-cracking kick-assery that panders to the fanboys.
And though the film beautifully visualizes Ma’s last-act plunge into blissful ignorance, Bong fails to give her fate any substantive sense of tragedy. By the time he rounds his way back to the opening scene, the character has lost all emotional pull, and her hysteria rings hollow.—Keith Uhlich
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