If you only know South Korean director Bong Joon-ho from his 2006 monster movie mash-up The Host, you don't know Bong. Mother, Bong's fantastic new psychodrama, is about as far removed from the campy, culty pleasures of that deranged creature feature as you can get. (To put it in American terms, it would be like David Fincher segueing from Zodiac to the upcoming 3D Godzilla reboot.) Of course, anyone lucky enough to have seen Bong's electrifying Memories of Murder in 2003 is already well versed in his non-CGI-dependent genre expertise. Along with, yes, Fincher's Zodiac, Memories was the best serial-killer procedural of the past decade.
The terrifically gripping, Hitchockian tale of an overly protective single mom who goes to extraordinary lengths to protect her mentally challenged adult son when he's accused of murdering a neighborhood party girl, Mother slayed 'em on last year's festival circuit. Hopefully, it will translate its fest buzz into a commercial splash on the U.S. art-house scene.
As the titular mother, veteran Korean TV star Kim Hye-ja is both terrifying and incredibly moving. The tantalizing question of whether or not Do-jun (former teen idol Won Bin, excellent) really killed the girl propels Mother and helps maintain our interest right up to the shocking climax — that and our curiosity about just how far his mom will go to help clear his name. Yet it's Kim's mercurial performance you'll remember even more than the plot's circuitous twists and turns. (Bong co-wrote the terrific, red-herring-strewn screenplay with Park Eun-gyo.)
Also very good is the wildly charismatic Jin Gu as Jin-tae, Do-jun's quasi-disreputable best friend. A classic "bad boy," the quick-to-violence Jin-tae is the type of hothead who settles a traffic dispute by brandishing a golf club. The fact that he seems to know more about the murder than he's (initially) willing to let on makes him a prime suspect in Mother's stealth criminal investigation. Bong's slow-burn approach to suspense may test the patience of some ADD-afflicted U.S. moviegoers. But the deliberate pace, artful mise-en-scene, and classically structured narrative pay the sort of emotionally satisfying dividends you won't find in most American thrillers.