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The poster for Joon-ho Bong’s newest work Madeo [Mother], along with the one word title, screams thriller where the mother at hand will do anything for her child. Bin Won’s Yoon Do-joon appears wide-eyed and scared, hiding himself behind Hye-ja Kim, a woman with steely determination to protect him. So, when the film begins with an odd sequence of Kim wandering aimlessly through a field of tall grass, eventually breaking out into an interpretative dance to the music superimposed over the imagery, I couldn’t help but get drawn in, wondering how this impromptu moment deals with the mystery to come. The story itself deals with the railroading of Yoon for a murder no one really believes he is capable of and his mother’s search to find the real killer once the police close the case without any certainty. She will stop at nothing to clear his name, whether it be turning against those she trusts or entrenching herself deeper into the secrets no one bothered to look for after her son’s arrest. Every mother would stand behind her son; the exercise here is to see just how far Kim’s character is willing to go.

After the dance, we are suddenly thrust into the city streets where Kim is cutting vegetables at the store she works for and Yoon is across the street playing with a dog and his friend Jin-Tae, (Ku Jin). Without warning, a BMW comes whipping through, hitting the boy and driving off. Kim is distraught and runs out to see how her son is doing when Jin-Tae drives up to go after the hit-and-runners, knowing a car that expensive can only be going to the country club. This is where all the trouble starts—it’s the boy’s first run in with the law and also the event where Yoon collects his golf balls and Jin-Tae steals his driver—as well as the point we discover there is something not quite right with Yoon. His mother is a peculiar woman who practices acupuncture without a license and deals in medication for fertility amongst other things, supposedly taking some to get pregnant with her son. The mixture of that and the fact she gives him some kind of medicine each day—not to mention a past incident with insecticide that will be revealed later on—begs the question whether she is the reason her son is simple. Don’t call him a retard because he’ll go after you, just like mother taught him; there are definitely a few missed connections in his brain.

Bin Won does a fantastic job portraying the simpleton, unable to focus for very long on one task, often forgetting details of his life, and never thinking before acting. Mother always said that if someone calls him a name he should kick their butt and if they hit him he should hit them back twice. The boy doesn’t know any better and therefore follows all directions to the letter; it’s how he was trained. Behind it all, though, is a kind-hearted soul, unable to willing hurt a waterbug, but also without the means to realize the consequence of his actions. Hye-ja Kim’s mother dotes on him due to this fact, constantly at his side to make sure he doesn’t get in trouble—the two even sleep in the same bed at night despite him being 28 years old. Her performance is at the center of it all, turning from the concerned parent to the vigilant amateur detective looking for the clues to clear her son’s name. The unfortunate facts against him are that people saw him follow the deceased girl to the place she died and one of the golf balls, he so neatly signed his name to, was found by the body. Besides his cries of innocence and everyone’s knowledge of his affliction, you can’t blame the police for putting him away and moving on.

Admittedly, watching her look for clues and try her best to get an expensive lawyer and appeal to the police chief’s kindness is a bit longwinded. The amount of time spent started to make me feel that perhaps that was all there was to the film; maybe there would be no revelation or surprising incident to shock me as I so hoped. I began to feel disappointed, even when clues about the victim started to be revealed, showing that she wasn’t quite the innocent little poor girl people assumed. But then the story starts to speed up, Jin-tae comes back to play cop—effectively I might add—and motives are uncovered to make almost every single male in town a suspect in the murder. Kim’s character finally has something to hold onto with substance, rather than trespassing on property to steal things she believes are evidence. The pieces begin to fall into place, illegal and abusive interrogations are performed, Yoon begins to remember things, and it soon falls to the boy’s mother to confront who everyone thinks is the real killer. It’s a scene that makes the film—effective in that it validates all the missed clues and mistaken assumptions before it, but also risks proving it all a cheat, spinning things in a way to create a fantastic ending that only masks an ineffective whole a la The Usual Suspects.

Saying that Madeo is nothing more than its end is a bit harsh and unwarranted. Joon-ho Bong has created a beautiful piece of cinema with some very memorable scenes including that strange dance in the grass and a gorgeous final shot of people gyrating on a bus in silhouette while the sun blinds us through the open spaces. He also infuses a few things that beg to be viewed again, symbolism that I am not familiar with, but could add another layer to what’s happening. Both Yoon and the dead girl Moon Ah-jung, played by Mun-hee Na, in flashback cover their right eye when talking. Does this allude to a representation of Horus and his ‘all seeing eye’ in Egyptian culture? And what about the fixation on feet getting dirty? We see Kim try and spread her son’s urine on the sidewalk with her foot, there is her sliding in wet mud, and close-ups of her socked feet sneaking out of Jin-tae’s apartment. What makes these moments so intriguing is that the film works coherently without them. Their simple existence makes me believe more is going on than seen on the surface. It makes me want to view it again and do a little research, adding one more level to a film that otherwise appears very straight-forward with only a tricky ending to set it apart from other thrillers being released these days.

Madeo [Mother] 7/10

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photography:
[1] Kim Hye-Ja in MOTHER, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[2] Won Bin in MOTHER, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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