The best murder mysteries start small and build outward, becoming less about the crime and more about the community where the crime took place, and the evolving psyches of the investigators. Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother starts with the fairly pathetic case of a mildly developmentally disabled adult accused of killing a promiscuous teenage girl from an uncaring family. Then the movie expands to take the measure of the small South Korean town where the murder took place, and of the woman who sifts through clues in order to learn the truth. The woman (played by the remarkable Kim Hye-Ja) is the mother of the accused, and seeking more than vindication for her boy. She brought this kid into the world and taught him how to conduct himself, and if he actually killed somebody, then maybe he’s merely the murder weapon, and she’s the culprit.
Like two of Bong’s previous films, Memories Of Murder and The Host, Mother could stand a little tightening. Bong invests even the minor characters with complex personalities, and he’s often willing to spend more time with them than necessary. While never dull or pointless, Mother does build slowly, as Bong lets the audience get close to Kim’s son (Won Bin) and his often-cruel best friend (Jin Ku), all while taking us deeper into the sad life of the dead girl. Mother considers the various ways children are shaped by their acquaintances—who may not have their best interests at heart—as well as by family members who mean well, but still make mistakes.
Again as with Bong’s earlier films, Mother is a genre exercise that honors convention, yet weaves around it whenever possible. Bong carefully turns Mother into a classic gumshoe tale, with red herrings, interrogations, and moments of sublime suspense. (Bong dearly loves scenes where puddles of spreading liquid provoke deep anxiety.) But the movie is also a superior character sketch, edging us deeper into the heroine’s fears and regrets. Mother is rarely splashy with its style, but the shots are well-chosen—especially the many close-ups of Kim as she begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. By the time Mother reaches its dreamy, impressionistic finale, Bong has earned every bleary frame.