Watched Apr 18, 2010
Before the 2010 program was published, fest director Meg Hamel let slip that she was planning to screen all four of Bong Joon-Ho's feature films. Though a big fan of commercial Asian cinema (director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is probably my all-time favorite film fest discovery, dating back to WFF2004's Cure), I'd yet to take in a Bong hit, and while my ambitious itinerary was to see all four, I only caught two. The first was the monster movie The Host; reviews for this movie said Bong here most resembled Spielberg, a crazy claim because despite his commercial juggernaut status no other director's work is really like Spielberg's, but damned if The Host doesn't show a tremendous facility for the sleights of hand of blockbuster filmmaking, a way of taking wonder and making it emotionally believable because it's refracted through the prism of a family's response. This screened at 10 p.m. on Thursday at the Orpheum Main Stage, and oh, the screams were beautiful. The second Bong movie I saw was Mother, his latest and the fest's closing night selection. This time, the critical comparisons tilt toward Hitchcock.
Hitchcock is a hilarious director to invoke on the subject of mothers for many reasons, but the most obvious is Psycho: Mom as superego-cum-killer-cum-id. Does Psycho's mother tell us anything about Mother? Sure. In both, the mother (here played by Kim Hye-ja) is preoccupied by the welfare of her too-old, living-at-home, mildly mentally incompetent bachelor son (here named Do-joon, played by Won Bin), whose sexual attraction to a troubled woman becomes the point of no return in a chain of events that will leave the woman dead...and she won't be the only one. All of that, plus: We all go a little mad sometimes.
Now, that's a snapshot of cutesy commonality rather than a true genetic match, but saying Mother is Hitchcockian doesn't oversell Bong's dread-soaked thriller. Kim's barnstorming performance as a mom out to prove her son's innocence is a kitchen-sink cavalcade, but the movie's true genius is, every 10 minutes or so, making you say, "Oh, so that's what the movie is really about." For instance: It starts with Do-joon being hit by a Mercedes, and his mother screams and runs into the street, but his injury isn't the story; he jumps in his friend's car for chase down the assaulter, but revenge isn't the story; they find the car, now parked at a golf course, and each try to knock off a mirror, but vandalism isn't the story; they lie in wait for the rich golfers on a late fairway, with the friend venting while Do-joon pleasantly plucks golf balls from the water hazard, but this George and Lennie relationship isn't the story; finally they engage the careless driver and his friends in a fairly bloodless fracas, but during the chaos Do-joon's friend takes a pricey golf club and throws it into the shallow end of the pond. Is this the story, the friend feigning concern about the traffic accident and just using it as a pretext to steal something valuable for himself? Yes, no, maybe so. This constant redefinition, always sparked by an unexpected story choice or character revelation, keeps viewers from growing complacent, and as the trapdoors keep springing beneath you, your understanding of the larger story -- beginning long before Do-joon was at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong woman -- grows grimmer and grimmer.
Watching a director doing familiar thriller beats is akin to checking out a still life -- we've all know what fruit in a bowl looks like, but show me what you've got. So here's how Bong (who also co-wrote the screenplay) does the classic "she walks across a room trying not to wake someone up," an early scene which I'll describe without (meaningful) spoilers. The mother is someplace she shouldn't be and finds something she shouldn't find; hearing someone approach, she steps into a closet and pulls the curtains shut around her. A couple enters and descends to a mattress on the floor; one of them may have framed her son and one of them is a similar type to the dead girl -- young, schoolgirl outfit, reading a manga, deferring his advances so she can finish reading. Bong then cuts between the mother's peering eye and the cavorting couple, with each shot in both directions partially obscured by the curtains. Time passes elliptically between cuts, and the mother averts her eyes (though not entirely) as the youngsters both undress, engaging in the sort of behavior of which her son has recently confided he feels deprived.
Suddenly, it's much later, and with those two asleep on a mattress on the floor, the mother creeps out. The room's geography has been cleanly established -- the bed is directly between the closet and the door -- and the scene progresses in close-ups: the mother's concerned face, her hands clutching the evidence, the entangled bodies beneath her, her feet sidestepping the noisy detritus littering the floor, and then: She tips over a water bottle. It thuds hollowly, but we see no response on his face; then, in a set of luminous extreme close-ups that might as well be a Kohler ad, the water slowly approaches his fingers, which dangle near the floor, closer, closer, and then contact. He twitches.
She makes it to the door, and now the shots get wider in angle; we cut to a view of his whole front yard as she closes that door behind her. As she quickly stalks across the yard, the door remains unobstructed and in focus, and we all know what that means: Just as the mother sneaks out of sight, it opens wide and the man walks out. He putters on the porch for a second, and we cut to an extremely wide shot of his whole property, with the house in the upper left corner; the mother has seemingly vanished, until we recognize her as the magenta smear in the lower right of the frame, hiding in the drab brush at the bottom of the steep dropoff outside his front door. There's nothing deeply psychological about the directorial choices being made here -- close-ups screwing the tension tighter, wider shots heralding her escape -- but it's done with sure hands and a painterly eye. Mother is an accumulation of a lot of these good choices, serving a heartbreaking story that goes deeper than genre expectations would first suggest.
Now, I told a small lie: This is tagged as a film fest review, but when my out-of-town guest couldn't get a rush ticket for Saturday's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he decided this was the next-best selection. Since he'd be on the road by the time Sunday's Mother screening rolled around, we went to Sundance, where the movie opened this weekend. There were a dozen other viewers in the theater with us. I laughed out loud once, and other than that, the screening was silent, despite all of the gasp-worthy moments. The memory of all the screaming Mimis at The Host just served as a reminder of what rarefied air the film fest is, packing Madison's movie faithful in like sardines and loosing a movie on that neural network -- 3,000 eyes and ears responding both to the movie and to their own responses, a folie à mille. Regardless of whether they articulate it, I think that's a truth that film fest attendees take home with them, pricking the back of their neck the next time they plop down solo in front of a DVD or shuffle off to join an indifferent crowd at a multiplex matinee of a movie they knew wasn't going to be any good but was going to be talked about at the water cooler on Monday: This isn't how it's supposed to be. And together we'll tick off the days until next April comes around.