Early in Bong Joon-ho’s last feature, 2006’s The Host, there’s a scene in which the dysfunctional Park family assembles to publicly mourn their youngest member, whom they (as well as the audience) believe has been eaten by a giant aquatic mutant that has emerged from the Han River. Each of the Parks is uniquely, comically pitiable: the poor, overindulgent father; the daughter left with a bronze medal in archery after choking at the last minute; the belligerent, unemployed alcoholic son. Each of the characters bawls loudly for their departed, but this mourning goes just a bit too far. Soon the scene moves from bathos to slapstick: they fall on the floor, thrashing about and kicking one another, as Bong demonstrates his total mastery of mood, converting tragedy to comedy in a series of very precise set-ups and carefully measured performances.
The Host remains the highest grossing South Korean film of all time, a ten-million-dollar monster movie with both a heart and a healthy dose of awkwardness. It mainly succeeds by deftly balancing the personal, the political, and the paranormal: coy jabs at political ham-fistedness and media-driven hysteria sit comfortably alongside quotidian family squabbles and knowing action-movie operatics. (It pays as much attention to the preparation of instant ramen as it does to large-scale carnage.) On the surface, his latest film, Mother, seems somewhat less ambitious by comparison. Concerning a small-town murder that has been hastily pinned on a young retarded man, it seems to lack the showmanship and entertainment value of The Host. But in its achingly precise mise-en-scène, its deeply affecting elegiac tone, its finely calibrated performances, and, yes, its straight-up knee-slapping silliness, Mother represents the work of an astonishingly talented narrative filmmaker at the height of his abilities—the precise ratio of restraint and exaggeration is expertly calculated in every scene. Read the rest of Leo Goldsmith’s review of Mother.