Time was when a hot foreign film director almost automatically received a plane ticket to America in the mail. Along with, of course, a chance to sell off all their artistic pretensions for the sake of working for the Yankee dollar. Not a bad deal if you’re already on the “Let’s talk, down in the basement” list of the Third Reich’s Gestapo heavies. Fritz Lang apparently exaggerated how tight things got for him before boarding his personal last train out of Berlin, but it was a grand old tradition, anyway, for as long as it lasted.
The emigre enclaves in Santa Monica are long gone now. Paul Verhoeven still has producers returning his phone calls, this many years after his pretty decent Robocop of 1987, and Roland Emmerich will have a few more shots at predictably blowing up the world, but after watching Finnish flash-in-the-pan Renny Harlin drill headfirst into the topsoil with his 1995 slushbuckler epic Cutthroat Island, not everyone in the movie audience would think it a crime if foreign directors were ruled out as de facto toxic goods.
Of course, it wasn’t just the Euro-types who derailed their Hollywood gravy train. Hong Kong’s John Woo, with the stylish, operatic take on low-budget ultraviolence and Manichean male-bonding plotlines that he displayed in films such as A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled, was a natural to be flown over here. And then finally flown back, after an American tour of duty that included bottom-scrapers such as Face/Off and Paycheck. (Woo’s latest, the trudging historical-action epic Red Cliff, might be a return home, but it’s not a return to form.) Given all that, it’s no wonder that a certain amount of skepticism was generated by the prospect of Korean director Bong Joon-ho getting a similar “Welcome to America” red-carpet roll-out.
Three years ago, Bong was coming off the feat of directing Korea’s all-time box-office winner. With its skewed take on Godzilloid out-of-the-water monster flicks, layering on equal parts dysfunctional nuclear-family dynamics and U.S. Army-baiting political metaphors, The Host showed that its director could get behind the wheel of standard money-making genres and take them for a drive into new territories. When reviewers of his latest film, Mother, started throwing around descriptors such as “heart-pounding” and “Hitchcockian,” Bong’s path to Hollywood, if he wanted it, seemed to be already being paved.
Or not. Bong’s Mother is Hitchcockian only to the degree that one can imagine a studio flunky telling his cigar-chomping boss, “It’s just like Psycho, J.B., only without the cheery, feel-good parts.”
Actually, Mother does throw in a few references to Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography. There hasn’t been this much onscreen Oedipal boundary-blurring since Norman Bates lost track of where he ended and his mom began. That the desperation of Bong’s protagonist in trying to clear her son of a murder charge might not be just the usual maternal concern is made clear when she tells him, “You and I are one.” Actress Kim Hye-ja’s masterful performance heightens the confusion; when her character nicks a finger, she convinces the audience as well as herself that it’s the son’s blood she sees.
That Bong is consciously working the parallels is evidenced by his composer Lee Byeong-woo’s near-perfect capture of longtime Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s proto-minimalist motifs. The mother’s amateur-detective prowl through a suspect’s shabby living quarters picks up an eerie resonance to the master’s 1954 Rear Window, though minus any Grace Kelly glamour. Which is one of the elements where Bong takes a sharp right turn away from Hitchcock: Mother’s low-end urban settings aren’t going to get its director any applause from the Korean Visitors Authority. Not many tourists are going to be inspired to book flights and hotel rooms after trudging through Bong’s depiction of a Korean cityscape that looks like the war ended the day before filming began.
And a trudge it is, although a worthwhile one. Mother is a great film, but Bong doesn’t bother working the accelerator just to rev up the audience’s sympathetic pulse. What suspense there is in the movie comes from the slow approach of dreadful revelations; the mother’s exonerating quest works its way, inch by inch, into desolate territories of regret. Hitchcock’s Psycho had at least a millimeter-thick sugar coating, as an advertisement for the therapeutic effects of clearing up all that nasty stuff from the past, dredging the car up from the bog and so forth. (Though you knew in your heart it wouldn’t actually work, and Norman would stay wrapped up in that blanket, at least until the pointless sequels were made.) Mother is more of a public service announcement advising everyone not to go anywhere near prying the lid off the past. In standard thrillers, revealed memories liberate; the more Mother’s characters remember, the more they wish they hadn’t.
As a movie, it’s a brutal, hammering masterpiece. As a career-advancing job pitch, it’s so far from what Hollywood considers commercial that one half-suspects that’s why Bong made it, after the big-ticket success of The Host. Now he won’t have to worry about being tempted to sell his artistic soul. After Mother, the offer might have already been pulled off the table.