Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Starring Hye-ja Kim, Bin Won, Ku Jin and Yoon Jae-Moon

Like the best genre filmmakers, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho understands that a genre picture doesn’t just have to provide solid entertainment–it can also function as incisive social commentary.

Just look at Bong’s previous film, The Host, which employed the tropes of ’50s monster movies to make a statement about the American military’s continued presence in South Korea.  His new movie Mother works on several levels as well; under the guise of an absorbing crime thriller, Bong offers a potent critique of a justice system where people are tried and convicted in the court of public opinion before going before an actual judge.  Above all though, the film is about the lengths to which some parents will go to protect their children, even if it means potentially putting other peoples’ lives at risk.

The mother of the title (played by Kim Hye-ja) is the elderly proprietor of a small shop in a rundown part of town.  While her only son Do-Joon (Won Bin) has long since grown up, he suffers from mental problems that keep him at home, close by her side.  One night though, he decides to test his independence by staying out late drinking and wanders down a dark alley in pursuit of a girl who apparently disappears before he can catch up with her.  The next morning that girl turns up dead and Do-Joon is immediately the police’s prime suspect, turning both him and his mother into neighborhood pariahs.  Refusing to believe that her kind, if troubled son could commit such a heinous act, Mother (whose exact name is never revealed) devotes herself to proving his innocence by any means necessary.  By the end of the movie, she’ll have engaged in such ethically dubious activities as hiring a thug to beat up a witness and setting a house on fire to destroy crucial evidence…all in the name of motherly love.

As in The Host, Bong’s behind-the-camera craft remains top-notch, but by far the most memorable thing about Mother is Hye-ja’s impassioned performance.  Much like the movie itself, this character can be viewed multiple ways.  Her actions throughout the film are admirable and horrifying, understandable and irrational and the actress portrays all of these apparent contradictions beautifully.  Where most crime stories direct the audience’s sympathy to the victim and his or her family, Mother asks us to consider the pain and suffering of the person that raised and still loves the accused killer.  It’s not an easy proposition, but Bong and Hye-ja are able to deliver a compelling character study cloaked in the guise of a routine thriller.

Mother opens in limited release on Friday.