The explosion of South Korean cinema in the last decade or so has been extraordinary to watch. Not long after the vibrant Hong Kong industry started losing its momentum, Korea began to take up the slack. Extraordinary filmmakers such as Park Chan-wook ("Oldboy"), Kim Ji-woon ("A Tale of Two Sisters") and Kim Ki-duk ("3-Iron") developed reputations.
Bong Joon-ho, whose fourth film, "Mother," opens in L.A. this week, is one of the best South Korean directors and arguably the most accessible to U.S. audiences. "The Host" (2006) -- which was an art-house hit in the U.S. and still holds the attendance record in South Korea for domestic films -- was a horror picture as well as a family comedy and drama. Likewise, "Mother" is a thriller as well as . . . something else.
Mother (Kim Hye-ja) -- like the title character in Roman Polanski's current "The Ghost Writer," she is never given an actual name -- devotes her life to looking out for her twentysomething son, Do-joon (Won Bin), who seems to be brain-damaged. He's definitely not very bright, and his memory is wholly unreliable. When a local high school girl (Moon Hee-ra) is murdered, circumstantial evidence points in his direction. In no time flat, the cops persuade him to sign a confession. Case closed.
But not for Mother. Barely scraping by financially and ignored by the police and the overpriced lawyer she hires, she has to take on the investigation herself, with some help from Do-joon's disreputable best friend, Jin-tae (Jin Goo). At her desperate urging, her son struggles to remember more details of the night in question; unfortunately, he also dredges up far earlier memories that are like a knife through Mother's heart.
The elements of the story resemble a subplot in Bong's acclaimed 2003 "Memories of Murder," which was told from the point of view of the homicide investigators. The change in focus makes "Mother" an even more intense work. Bong conceived the story specifically for actress Kim, who was best known for playing doting mothers on TV. Mother is certainly doting, but, with the pressure of defending her son, this quality quickly turns into obsession, ruthlessness and a series of increasing transgressions of her own.
Bong's technique grows more assured with each film. His widescreen compositions are so striking that simple static shots often draw chuckles -- e.g., the characters seeming dwarfed by their surroundings as Do-joon urinates on a wall while drinking broth from a bowl held by Mother. Do-joon is little more than a factory for converting liquid.
The easy comparison here is to Hitchcock, but Bong moves at a slower pace, more like Claude Chabrol. And, like both of those forebears, Bong certainly knows how to generate suspense: The very first shot after the credits shows Mother chopping herbs with a hinged guillotine cutter, her fingers moving closer and closer to the blade, even as she gets more and more distracted trying to keep an eye on Do-joon. We cringe waiting for the wounding slice.
The scene is like a microcosm of things to come. Will Mother's concern lead to more blood being spilled by the end? Will she damage herself in the process? Is there any doubt?