It’s a small South Korean city surrounded by lots of open space. Mother (Hye-Ja) is a middle-aged woman who eeks out a living by performing unlicensed acupuncture and selling herbal remedies. She is obsessively protective of her handsome 28-year old son, Yoon-Do Joon (Bin Won) who lives with her because he is mentally challenged enough not to be able to live on his own. He has a tenuous grasp on reality, good and bad, and is gullible to a fault. Mother has taught him to rub his temples, pushing acupressure points, when he wants to remember something — sometimes it works, sometimes not. Now a mature man physically, Yoon-Do Joon has discovered alcohol and the camaraderie of street thugs, but what he really wants is to have sex.
The town is horrified by the brutal murder of a troubled teenage girl whose body was left hanging over the edge of a rooftop for everyone to see. Murder is a rare occurrence in the town so the police don’t have any real system of investigation. They figure that dim-witted Yoon-Do Joon did it, they arrest him, and get him to sign a confession. Done. Now they can put their energies on solving a recent auto theft.
Mother is convinced her son did not commit this murder. Despite obstacles from everyone, including her poverty, she sets out to find the real murderer and get her son out of prison. Reluctantly helping her is Jin-Tae (Ku Jin) a street-wise young criminal who has hung out with her son because his naivety amused him. Together they discover that the murdered girl slept with any man who would give her rice to eat. And that she took photographs of these men which were on her cell phone. If Mother and Jin-Tae can locate the cell phone, they might find the murderer. Their search takes them both across a microcosm of South Korean culture (which I found fascinating), including quite a few crazy people. All the performances are so realistic you almost forget you’re watching a movie and feel like you’re right in the scenes yourself.
Meantime, Yoon-Do Joon, in fits of lucidity, is remembering not only details of the night the murder occurred, but also memories from his troubled childhood that his mother would rather be left buried.
Slowly, as Yoon-Do Joon’s memory is released, the story takes amazing twists and the Mother faces challenges she never dreamed she would have to face. Alongside the unraveling of the story rolls the beautiful countryside, seemingly open and peaceful, but hiding horrors of its own.
Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud to put his name on this low-key, elegant tale. It’s constantly intriguing, full of believable twists, with mesmerizing cinematography and absolutely wonderful performances. I was sorry to see the movie end. Director Joon-Ho Bong is definitely a filmmaker to keep on your watch list.
In a season of memorable mysteries, such as Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mother is a worthy addition. Though Mother is in Korean with English subtitle, I never had a problem following the story. If you can’t see it on the big screen, do get it when it comes out on DVD.