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Madeo Review

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by Casimir Harlow Aug 18, 2010

    Madeo Review
    You hear those stories about how, in extreme circumstances, mothers will do unfeasible feats to rescue their children: like the one about the mother who lifted up a car to save her child trapped underneath after a crash. In the movies, single mothers in particular are portrayed as being capable of almost anything to protect their kids; often having lost all faith in man-kind, their only love and hope now residing in their promising child. It's understandable really, there is likely no love stronger, but sometimes - and more often than many parents would care to admit - that motherly love can gloss over the very real woes that your child has. Whether it be that shock about their sexuality, the truth about their alcoholism (or dabbling in drugs), or even that persistent smoking habit that they just can't shake, parents - and mothers in particular - are very good at mentally sweeping it all under the carpet, and covering it up with a warm, loveable but wholly unrealistic projection of all that their child could be. It puts pressure on kids, and also makes them extremely good at deception - arguably under the ambit of 'white lies' and 'better off not knowing'. And it often takes a great deal of in-your-face undeniable reality for them to finally accept the cold, hard truth about the matter, the effect of which can really be quite devastating.
    Mother tells the powerful tale of Do-joon, a mentally handicapped young man; and his over-protective single mother, who is wary of her son's every step. They live very closely together, Do-joon often displaying the intelligence and capacity of a child, and his mother often treating him as such. Disapproving of some of Do-joon's associations - in particular a friend of his, Jin-tae, who always gets him into trouble - the mother is plagued by the debts incurred by the mischievous antics of her wayward son; he may be ostensibly innocent and guileless, but he is also easily led and easily misled. He will basically take the blame for anybody. And when the dead body of a local schoolgirl is discovered, and the finger pointed at Do-joon, it falls upon the mother - seemingly the only person who still has faith in his innocence - to get to the truth.
    Methodically constructed and powerfully delivered, Mother is a dark character-study of a drama, taking the simple question of 'how far would a mother go?' and allowing it to grow and flourish in a rich narrative; one which is itself imbued by unusual, interesting people who seldom behave within the stereotyped norm. Do-joon is far from totally innocent and guileless, despite his childish manner; often prone to drunken, aberrant behaviour and angry lashing-out (especially when people call him retarded). His best - or perhaps, more accurately - only friend is the far-from-squeaky-clean Jin-tae, whose off-hand, sometimes harsh treatment of Do-joon could easily be construed as nasty bullying and leading astray. And the mother herself? Well, she's just a bag of mixed signals and motherly love gone into unhealthy overdrive. These characters never behave predictably, and yet many of the ideas ring true: whether it be in how you are treated by your own mother, or by your friends; or in how you treat your friends and your own children.
    The acting is superior, especially from the three aforementioned characters: Kim Hye-ja is arguably the most sympathetic as the titular 'mother', forever trying to enclose her child-like adult son in a protective bubble and protect him from everything else in the world. It's a strong performance that probably carries the whole movie, as we follow her increasingly desperate behaviour and learn more about her own mistakes and her own unforgiveable sins. Won-bin is fairly convincing as the mentally handicapped son: an adult both physically and in terms of his sexual urges, but a child in intellect and capacity - he has the attention-span of a gnat, but has plenty of repressed feelings welling up inside, and Won-bin brings much of that to the forefront in his decent portrayal here. Jin Goo plays Jin-Tae, the trouble-making, seemingly rebellious friend of Do-joon, who is at once both protective of, and really quite nasty to, his companion. Portrayed quite mysteriously by the young actor, you are never really sure of where this man's loyalties lie. Aside from these three powerful performances, the film is emboldened by a plethora of enigmatic supporting contributions, each one as intriguing and against-type as the next (even the trademark 'dumb cop' is given an edge here and made more than one-dimensional).
    The Director, Joon-ho Bong (the man behind the 2006 horror hit, The Host) has crafted an intricate and well-executed drama, putting all of these characters - and this compelling mystery - together, in a bleak but still remarkably stylish package. It is a testament to his direction that he can get so much damn tension out of even the most insignificant of shots - the small hand-guillotine that the mother uses to chop herbs may make an extremely satisfying sound, but every chop makes you alert as to the potential of lost appendages. And the opening shot - an overtly ludicrous sequence where the lead character does a silly little dance, seemingly to the background music - what other Director could successfully integrate that preposterous shot into the main story? Joon-ho Bong deserves some serious kudos for his work here.
    Mother is an acclaimed, award-winning drama, by all accounts, getting released here in the UK off the back of its success in Asia. It's another one of those movies which was picked up, digested, liked, and then re-released later, and more widely, because of its critical acclaim. That happened with the vastly underrated Ip Man, and - more shockingly - with the likes of Hero (which was re-released years after its initial production, and after the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). And for the last decade, Korean movies have arguably had the most new-and-unexpected successes within the Asian filmmaking industry. Apparently Spielberg is remaking the amazing Oldboy (how on Earth he's going to pull that off, I have no idea, but I think the most obvious answer would be: he's not), and Joon-ho Bong's own The Host has contributed to an ever-increasingly list of hit Korean entries. Mother is definitely one such entry. But, after all of this, after all of the credit given to the performances, the characterisation, the narrative and the direction, I have to say that I'm not sure it deserves as much acclaim as it has been getting.
    Although it may be a controversial view, I think Mother goes a little too far in its insightful characterisation, and - in doing so - can somewhat alienate the viewer. The story is compelling, but because you want to know who did it, and I could say the same thing about any one of a hundred Sherlock Holmes mysteries. And every single character may be individually interesting in that they do not behave in clichéd, stereotyped ways, but - similarly - they also feel almost too far detached from the norm to be easy to relate to. I may sound like I'm nitpicking here, but the drama often goes one step too far to make its characters stand out, and that extra step is detrimental in terms of the empathy that a sympathetic audience may be able to summon up. The mother herself is the biggest problem: an added incest story-strand really driving the film too far from what (hopefully) many could understand or accept. Hinted-at? Fine. But Joon-ho Bong's hints are too blunt to ignore, and it's these few taken-to-the-extreme moments (I mean, why the hell would any mother stare at her adult son while he's urinating) that took me out of the picture, and made me appreciate everything about it, but not really like anybody in it. And after two-hours-plus of having to be with these characters, even if you aren't supposed to like them, you do have to have some kind of respect or admiration for something about one of the leads, otherwise you just won't care what happens to any of them. And it will be a wasted journey. It's a problem that I have found with everything from Requiem for a Dream (which I still appreciate as a masterpiece of a production) to Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (which was just depressing monotony). Mother, whilst not quite a wasted journey (especially thanks to the lead performance), is still - in my opinion - also not the must-see masterpiece it has been labelled as. It is instead that 'masterpiece of a production', which you can appreciate from afar, but which you would never really want to sit through again: that movie which compels you to watch to its closing credits, but will sit uneasily with you both during, and afterwards.