What a gleefully macabre noir masquerading as neo-realist drama this is. From Bong Joon-ho, the director of The Host and the astoundingly underrated Memories of Murder, comes a film that manages to both swaggeringly eviscerate expectations by shifting gears every thirty minutes while also remaining so confident and thoroughly quiet about its gusto that it flows like butter. This film is dark and dreary, with a wonderfully droll sense of humor, and it brings new life to detective conventions by casting a middle-aged mother (Hye-Ja played by Kim Hye-Ja) as a detective with a personal stake in the crime. It’s a true pitch-black pleasure.
The fact that the detective’s polished shoes and clipped, cigar-touting moxie are filled by an aging, lonely mother, who is as restless as she is restful, is also not merely superficially subversive. More than anything, this central detective flies in the face of the logic of noir, which posits that the detective (at least on the surface) shall not personally care about the outcome of the mystery, often because they are longer capable of human emotion at all. Here, the main character explicitly casts her motherly identity on the fate of the investigation – her son Do-Joon (Woo Bin) has been accused of murder and she aims to prove society wrong, even when she comes to realize they may be right. Her concern gives the film a humanist warmth, lacking in many film noirs, that guides the film along on a tone that is almost elegiac and even lethargic when so many other noirs are viciously tight.
But, although Hye-Ja’s astoundingly modulated performance brings a dose of much-needed humanity to the proceedings, it is not all humanism and warmth. Lest we forget, this is a South Koran detective film, and one from a modern master of the macabre nonetheless. The cinema of South Korea has faced generalizations of late for its grotesquely chilling forays into the depths of human darkness (as well as for a black comedy approach to gallows subject matter). It’s a shame for any national cinema to be reduced to such a simplistic generalization, yes, but that doesn’t negate the kernel of truth in the claim: there are a number of very top-notch South Korean directors working today who are especially good at dishing out nihilist tall-tales for all to gather round and bask in. And the production companies of the country seem more than willing to fund such filmmaking despite, or because of, its playful attitude toward frigid darkness. But if you’ve got it, flaunt it. And when it comes to the dreary gloom of human decay, South Korea’s got it.
To this extent, any seeming warmth to the film’s central relationship starts to turn a bit oppressively hot when the film delves into some of the more complicated and queezy places humans will go to protect their loved ones when their affection is pushed into a box and stepped on by the weight of the world. A great deal of black-hearted visual wit and gruesome pleasures abound, as they did in Joon-ho’s previous films, and as fits the fancy of the brashest of the modern South Korean directors. Joon-ho isn’t the don of the South Korean cinematic mafia – that will forever be Park Chan-wook. Joon-ho is the Joe Pesci character, the fidgety, carnal blast of anarchy just waiting to unfurl and unload his full weight onto the world. But in the meantime he sits back like Pesci, cautiously waiting and biding his time, and he jokes up a mighty, violent storm.
Explode he does, though. Witness the uncannily unnerving ending shot and its breaking of the film’s resolute formal precision, with the camera shaking uncontrollably and quavering about in a bit of guerrilla chaos. At this moment, the film, like its main character, is at its most undisciplined, capturing a mother caring for her son and herself in a way that is at once haunting and heart-breakingly human. Before this scene, the whole affair had been cool as ice – sedate to the point of ultra-confidence and comfortable with just sitting back and having a cigarette while it wraps itself around you before you know what happened. And after two hours of coiling around us, it all comes undone like a punch to the gut that leaves us touched and confused in ways words cannot convey. Mother masquerades as a mere mystery, but it is a morbid study in the miles and myths one woman will go to in order to retain her maternal sanity.