Korean writer and director Bong Joon-ho’s new film Mother is a slippery mix of Oedipal drama (as the title suggests), grisly murder mystery, robust physical comedy and cutting social commentary made with a deft grasp on a shifting tone and photographed with the director’s trademark visual acuity.

The film opens on an unsettlingly weird scene as Hye-ja Kim’s nameless single parent wanders through a grassy field before starting an awkward, arm-waving dance directly to camera. The owner of a small herbal remedy shop, she is mother to a mentally challenged young man (the neighbours unkindly refer to him as a “retard”), who she has protected since childhood.

Now in his early twenties, Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin) spends his days hanging out with his only friend Jin-tae (Jin Goo), drinking too much and talking about girls. One night, when wobbling home from the local pub, Do-joon finds himself trailing behind a local schoolgirl. He tries to talk to her, but she ignores him. The next morning, she is found dead on a rooftop with all the clues pointing to Do-joon as the culprit. His horrified mother refuses to believe the police verdict and while her son sits in prison awaiting trial, she launches her own one-woman investigation, retracing her son’s steps on the night in search of the truth. She is the only person in the rural town who believes her son is innocent, and in the face of public ridicule, stands alone in trying to clear his name. Her sleuthing leads her to uncover a sleazy schoolgirl sub-culture of sex and violence, hidden just below the polite veneer of Korean society.

As in Bong’s previous films, monster-movie The Host and police procedural Memories of Murder, the writer and director delights in establishing the basic schematics of the genre film, the wronged-man thriller in this case, and then gently teasing the threads apart before re-weaving them into something totally unique and utterly compelling. Mother is an impeccably realised murder mystery but it goes on to become a devastating character study of a woman pushed to the edge of reason by circumstances she failed to control. Kim Hye-ja, a Korean television actress previously unknown to me, gives an astonishing performance as the overprotective, intrepid mother, running the gamut from Mary Poppins to Miss Marple to Lady Macbeth.

Starting at one place and slowly, inexorably migrating to somewhere completely different, Bong’s combination of dazzling cinematic craft, psychological insight and compelling storytelling make Mother one of the films of the year.

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