Talk about feeling out of step with my critical brethren: on the same day that 'Mother' screened as part of the New York Film Festival last year, another movie ran right after. After 'Mother,' the crowd was mostly silent, but I had to pick my jaw up off the floor (it was sticky and coated in a weird resin - my jaw, not the floor). Out in the lobby, where we had to chill in-between movies, I was like "WHOA!" And my fellow critics gave the seesawing hand of indifference (one which I've been known to break out from time to time here). Then the second movie screened, which I thought was more or less amateur hour in Dixie, even though it had a strong emotional core and some fine performances. After the second movie the director joined us, and people were tripping over themselves with praise. I thought to myself: didn't you guys just see 'Mother?'
The second movie was 'Precious.'
But 'Mother!' 'Mother' is the masterpiece. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, who had previously helmed the genius small town police procedural 'Memories of Murder' and monster movie 'The Host,' the film is a twisted and unique take on the detective story, and a kind of inverse of Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho.' (That's if you want a box art-ready pull quote-y quote.
The film takes place in a small South Korean town. Do-joon (Won Bin) is a man in his late twenties but is slow (mentally). He lives alone with his mother, Hye-ja (Kim Hye-ja), and there are some suggestions that their relationship is incestuous, but Joon-ho, the cinematic trickster, never explicitly states anything. When a young girl is murdered, the local police finger Do-joon as the killer. And so, naturally, Hye-ja, a woman pushing senior citizen status, decides to clear her son's name. So the movie is a detective story, except instead of an urban setting it's a small South Korean town and instead of a grizzled detective, it's an elderly woman.
If you aren't sold yet, then there may not be hope for you.
The way the story unfolds is just brilliant, and far too juicy to ruin here, and Joon-ho, who is as much a genre prankster as he is a wonderful painter of human relationships, renders the bond between mother and son beautifully. Yes, it's creepy and weird, but in such a skilled filmmaker's hands it's also quite touching. When I spoke to Bong Joon-ho earlier this year, around the time of the film's theatrical release, he said that he made the movie specifically for Kim Hye-ja. She had played many mothers in Korean film and television, in warm, loving roles, and he wanted to play with her image, and take her to a darker, deeper place. He definitely succeeded.
'Mother,' like all great genre movies, plays with the hallmarks of the form. Besides the detective being played by an elderly woman, there are some really great flashes of gallows humor and there's an unlikely alliance formed between Hye-ja and a young hood (Jin Goo) who is friends with the incarcerated Do-joon. (He helps. For a price.)
And just as beautifully as the story is told, it's also shot with an impeccable eye. Seriously, this thing is just astounding looking. From a wonderful shot of Hye-ja tromping through the rain with a pivotal piece of evidence covered in plastic, to the fairly innocuous activity of retrieving golf balls from a local putting green, everything is just gorgeous. If only American movies this small could look this good. Instead, small budgeted American films are too often defined by their low grade look; crummy cinematography worn as a badge of honor.
If you haven't figured it out yet, I loved 'Mother.' It was my favorite movie at NYFF last year and probably my favorite movie to be released theatrically this year. It's just flat-out brilliant; a funny, thrilling, touching, unique crime story and one that stays with you long after the lights come up in the theater (or the Blu-ray disc stops spinning).
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB Blu-ray disc from Magnolia is Region "A" locked and BD-Live ready (although at the time of this writing there are no BD-Live features up yet). That's about all there is to talk about. Oh, except that there's a great movie on the disc! But I guess I already talked about that.
This 1080p AVC MPEG-4 transfer (aspect ratio: 2.35:1) is really stunning.
Where it counts, it's all there: nice contrast; good skin tones; deep, dark blacks; with a nice layer of grain that creates a truly cinematic feel. There are also no buggy technical issues or evidence of that pesky Digital Noise Reduction.
But where this transfer really succeeds is in capturing the earthiness of Joon-ho's film (and Hong Kyung-pyo's cinematography). Even though the movie becomes very dark and scary at times, there's this kind of earthen warmth that the movie exudes, possibly as an extension of the mother/son relationship metaphor. Grain fields bristle in the wind, a stream of urine trickles like a babbling brook, and the final shot - good lord the final shot - will leave you absolutely breathless and full of hope.
I was worried that this transfer might fall short, and some online have claimed that it's slightly different than the South Korean Region-free Blu-ray, but I was impressed, dare I say amazed, by Magnolia's domestic release.
Equally impressive is the Korean DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix. From the film's gorgeous opening shot of the mother standing in the middle of the field, a Spanish guitar slowly filling the soundtrack, you will know the power of this mix. It's not exactly going to wake up the neighbors, but it is a finely calibrated, wonderful mix none-the-less.
The movie is a mostly quiet one, with a lovely little score by Lee Byung-woo which twinkles in and out and sounds great here. There are some really great sound effects, though, that sound just dynamite here, like when mother chops this wheat-like herb, or when mother and son have a dinner of chicken, these sound effects are just beautifully realized. And the sound effect of the actual murder? Oof. You hear that one in your chest.
It's the perfect case of subtle atmospherics that make good use of the surround channels and effects that pop at just the right moment without ever being too loud or obtrusive. The dialogue is always crisp and clear, not that you'll know what they're saying, unless you speak Korean. Subtitles are provided, within the frame, in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
The voluminous extras presented here are ported over from the South Korean release, except this time with subtitles! Yay! (And thank you Internet!) There are also a couple of features that are on the Blu-ray that aren't on the DVD, but both have the wonderful, feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary, so fret not.
'Mother' is a masterpiece. Plain and simple. It's one of the most finely nuanced, emotionally acute, and thrilling mysteries in recent memory. Filled with fine performances and beautiful cinematography, it's a movie that will very literally haunt you long after the movie is over. I cannot recommend this movie enough. And this Blu-ray disc, with superb audio and video and great special features anchored by a feature-length documentary, is equally out-of-this-world. They could have dropped the ball with the high def presentation of this great movie but thankfully, they didn't. This is a must-own disc, all the way.