In 2006 South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho released "The Host," a funny, scary, pointed critique of America's military presence on the peninsula. His follow-up, "Mother," is a very different film with a very similar hero at its heart.
"Mother" tells the story of 27-year-old Do-joon (played by Won Bin), a man who is, in the parlance of his fellow townsfolk, a "retard." Do-joon isn't so impaired that he doesn't enjoy bars and chasing girls with his friend Jin-tae (Gin Joo), but he still lives with his mother, even sharing a bed with her. When a local girl is found dead, Do-joon is the prime suspect, sending his mother, Hye-ja (Kim Hye-ja), on a quest to see her son exonerated.
In addition to having a first-rate whodunit at its core, the film is smart and laugh-out-loud funny, displaying a range of humor from dry to playful to grim.
Won and Kim are both outstanding as child and mother, offering performances that are polar opposites. Won wears the placid face of a simpleton confounded by the most basic things, but there's always life behind his eyes, and he manages to convey Do-joon's range of emotion with an economy of facial expression.
Kim, conversely is all wide eyes and worry, as she tries feverishly to stay one step ahead of the perils that threaten her son at every turn. Like the mother-monster of "The Host," her loyalty to her is boundless, she will do anything to protect her baby.
Bong, for his part, does a nice job of framing his actors' faces at one moment, moving his camera across planes and around corners, and occasionally offering long shots to provide depth and context.
It's easy to fall back on comparisons to Hitchcock when discussing a thriller like "Mother," but the great director's fingerprints are all over this film, right down to Byeong-woo Lee's score. At times the strings have the bounce of the violins in "Psycho," but are more understated, building tension, rather than trying to scare you.
"Mother" is a beautifully made and all too rare murder mystery that doesn't insult your intelligence with shortcuts or characters swayed by inconsistent motivations in the name of plot -- all the pieces fit.
"Mother" opens in limited release March 12