There’s no denying that Bong Joon-ho is one of the three most popular South Korean directors, along with Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon. Each recently made their first English-language films, which for Bong was the riveting Snowpiercer. While I hope many are going out of their way to watch that one, his four other features are just as, if not more, fascinating. Today, I’ll take a look back at his fourth feature, Madeo (Mother), one of the most enthralling mysteries I’ve seen in some time.
Bong opens his film with the titular character walking through a golden field, only to stop in front of the camera and dance for us, occasionally staring into the camera and smiling. This is Madeo and right off the bat, anyone watching can tell that something is a little off. As we soon discover, she’s the mother of a mentally-handicapped young man, one who is easily taken advantage of. In just a few days, her son will become the prime suspect in the murder of a young woman, leaving her to be the sole person interested in investigating his case.
Just as his other films break barriers between genres, the boundaries of your average mystery/thriller don’t exist in Bong’s universe. In great part, the narrative unfolds more like a drama with the plot of a murder mystery and a pitch black comedic sensibility. But when he chooses to dish out the tension, it’s as intense as it gets. As the film progresses, it dives further and further into a rabbit hole of sex, lies, and videos. Whether or not that hole has a bottom or any way to escape is near-impossible to predict. But even though it transcends the simple label of “thriller” or “mystery,” it could be argued that this is the Bong Joon-ho script that falls into those respective genres the most.
Madeo is filled to the brim with moments that force you to hold your breath, especially in how they’re shot; every close-up to an object only emphasizing just how close we are to potential tragedy. Where Memories of Murder plays like the kind of thing that might have inspired David Fincher’s Zodiac, Madeo takes its beats from blending modern filmmaking with a classic filmmaker’s usual beats. In this way, it’d be practically impossible to deny the influence of Hitchcock considering the Oedipal themes, narrative beats that set your curiosity aflame, occasional voyeurism, and music that suddenly intensifies after minutes of painfully stress-inducing silence.
But ultimately, Madeo hinges on Kim Hye-ja’s performance as the mother. Her role demands a wide range, her act shifting from cool and collected to entirely unhinged in a moment’s notice. As many laughs as Bong aims for throughout the film, it’s clear what that his goal with Kim’s performance was to evoke a variety of non-comedic emotions from the audience. She’s a woman driven by nothing but love, and that is a love that knows no limit. Between her performance and the way Bong never ceases to give even his strangest, sometimes wicked, characters a sense of humanity, Madeo will leave you feeling a sense of heartbreak long after its darkest moments have passed.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Park Eun-kyo & Bong Joon-ho; starring Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, Jin Goo, Yoon Je-moon; 128 minutes.