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I’ve never been the biggest Bong Joon-ho fan. I found The Host unscary and boring, Snowpiercer absurd and heavy-handed, and while I liked Okja there’s no denying its severe tonal issues. I think he solves all these problems in the film he made prior to the latter two, 2009’s Mother. Here is a film with exacting tonal shifts, bold and compelling compositions, and an engrossing narrative.
What really interests me here is the tone. While it’s mostly a straightforward murder mystery, there are elements of comedy (including some physical gags) that in similar films would seem out of place. They don’t serve to alleviate the tension or lift the audience’s spirits, but they still work quite well. They give the characters something to do besides brood and cry and scream. It sets it apart from Okja, which swung back and forth between extremely broad and extraordinarily traumatic with little warning. It made that film feel cartoonish and alienating. Here, it makes the small Korean town it’s set in feel that much more like a real place.
Speaking of alienation, Bong uses the effect much better here. Many shots are just a little too wide, framed at odd angles, or focusing on what seem like the wrong details. During a fight scene at a golf course early in the film, the camera follows a golf club that’s been tossed into a lake away from the fight, moving back to it only once the club sinks. It not only reminds you of the camera’s presence (and the artificiality of the film itself by extension), it deliberately confuses and disorients.
I just can’t help but wonder what happened to the guy who made a film this precise, so focused on small gestures. In Mother, a slap in the face punctuates a drop in background noise. A spilled water bottle slowly oozes along the ground towards a sleeping man’s dangling finger. A desperate mother places drinks on every desk in a police station when she comes to pick up her arrested son. It’s a film that lives in the focus on these tiny moments.
Snowpiercer and Okja, on the other hand, are as broad as broad can be. There’s no specificity in those films, no attention paid to details. Why has Bong gone down this road? Those films brought him success and acclaim outside his native country, but at the cost of losing elements of the great filmmaking he’s capable of. It’s a real shame to see a talented filmmaker recede into such lame work. We’ll always have Mother, at least.