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Protective mother turns detective

South Korean comic-thriller 'Mother' shows how far a mom will go for her child

Chris Garcia
Kim Hye-ja shows shades of lunacy as she tries to figure out who murdered a local schoolgirl. Her son, Won Bin, has mental challenges that make him an easy target for blame.

"Mother," the latest tonal milkshake from exciting South Korean director Bong Joon-ho ("The Host"), opens with an older woman dancing alone in a field. Swaying serenely, wearing a dim smile, she looks right at us and continues her happy reverie.

This playful self-awareness cues you to how Bong will handle his tangy crime thriller, and it makes it almost impossible to take the story's central drama very seriously. Which might be fine by Bong, a twirler of mood. He has the sly, cheeky way of Hitchcock, leavening dark proceedings with darker humor. In "Mother," though, the comedy defangs the suspense and you're left with a beguiling oddity.

The dancing woman is the mother of the title, played by Kim Hye-ja, whose feverish concern for heradult son (slack-faced Won Bin), who has mental challenges, gives her the feral mien of a mama bear protecting her cub. (Theirs is a curious relationship, with intimations of incest that the movie leaves teasingly unexplored.) When the son is framed for the murder of a local schoolgirl, mom goes on a frenzied journey to prove his innocence.

Playing unorthodox detective, she hides, skulks and spies, burrowing into the mystery, which assumes "Rashômon" shades. Hye-ja loses herself in a role that demands the duality of maternal instinct — empathy and ferocity — showing that motherhood can be a kind of mania.

For all of Bong's formal control and striking set-pieces, "Mother" can't find its tonal bearings. The son's slowness is played for laughs — he's a clownish figure — and the mother's anguish is constantly neutralized by glib business. Bong, a leader in the new wave of South Korean film, did better in his fine detective story "Memories of Murder," incorporating physical humor, violence and a sad lyricism, and the hit horror-comedy "The Host."

All the movies deal in matter-of-fact lunacy. But "Mother" is too light on its feet: In the final shot we again find mama dancing away, dreamily.

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649

Rating: R for language, sexuality, nudity, violence, drugs. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes. Theaters: Alamo South, Arbor.