(2009) director Joon-ho Bong
viewed: 07/25/10

The latest film from Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong (Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006)) is very much in tune with the tones of both of his prior films, a downbeat mixture of drama peppered with odd-feeling comedic elements.  Actually, it reminded me quite a bit of Memories of Murder in general, featuring the murder of a teenage girl while much of the story is about the attempt to solve the murder, as well as it is set in a more rural town, a very non-urban world for the film.

Going into the film, I didn’t know a terrible lot about it other than it was a bit creepy and revolved around a mother’s doting attention on her somewhat mentally deficient young adult son.  And actually, as the movie gets going, it sort of takes a while to sort itself out from a story perspective.  Part of the exposition that sets the characters in place before the major events transpire leave you not entirely sure what the characters are, good or bad, capable of.

Kim Hye-ja plays the mother, a broad-ranging and interesting role, a character not to be pigeon-holed, per se.  She raised her mentally-challenged son in rather hard-scrabble times and seems to be both over-doting, over-protective, and potentially semi-sexual with this man-child of hers, played by Won Bin.  She has lived her entire life for him and tells him flat out that their lives are one in her maternal dedication and self-effacement.

When her son stands accused of the murder of a young girl, a town floozy, and he signs a confession, she is driven to try anything and everything to free her son from prison and clear his name.  The lengths she goes include hiring an expensive, very-uninvolved attorney, but additionally requires her to play detective when the local police are apathetic about the case.  Her investigations lead her to break into her son’s best friend’s apartment, to try to find the dead girl’s missing cell phone (which is said to contain incriminating photos of the numerous boys that she’d slept with and potentially her murderer as well), and ultimately go as far as she has to in order to extricate her son from jail.

While never uninteresting, the film plays out as kind of weird.  The mixture of humor and dramatic tonality (though I’ve noted it before in Bong’s films) is a little hard to get a handle on.  At times the sequences seem to suggest light-hearted silliness, which are then contrasted with rather melodramatic weightiness.  And while this works to strange effects no necessarily bad, it did also leave me a little unsure of exactly what I felt about the film.

I did like how Bong pulled it together in the end, and there are certainly moments or sequences that are stirring and moving.  On the whole though, it wasn’t my favorite of his films, and I think I found a myself somewhat ambivalent about the whole.

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