"When it comes to subverting the audience’s expectations, Joon-ho proves he is a puppet master, pulling our strings without us ever suspecting it."

They say there is no greater love than that between a mother and her child and Bong Joon Ho’s follow up to The Host explores that idea, pushing it to the extreme edge of its envelope.

Twenty-seven-year-old Yoon Do-joon is the sort of child who needs more love than most. Naïve and easily led by his ne’er do well chum Jin-tae, he is a walking disaster area, depending on his long-suffering mum to bail him out of hot water on an almost daily basis. He’s such a patsy, in fact, that when a young schoolgirl is found dead, he quickly finds himself in the frame for her murder, thanks to offering a quick ‘confession’ to a lazy police force looking to clear the case with a minimum of fuss. It seems mummy dearest will have to go to uncompromising lengths in order to prove his innocence.

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When it comes to subverting the audience’s expectations, Bong proves he is a puppet master, pulling our strings without us ever suspecting it. The casting of Kim Hye-ja - famous in her homeland for portraying mothers of a more caring, sharing nature – also wrong-foots the viewer and emphasises the extremes that parenthood makes possible.

The idea of taking a peek into the dark side of parental love is a strong and unusual one – particularly since the ‘child’ here is, if not emotionally, then at least physically, an adult – but Bong’s film suffers from a shifting tone that is unsettling for the wrong reasons. Initial uneasy comedy – rather broad and using Yoon’s mental shortcomings as the butt of the joke – gives way to a tense and clever thriller-steeped middle segment before the film’s emphasis switches, ratchetting the action up to an overly melodramatic conclusion.

Still, if the tone doesn’t quite hold up for the film’s duration, the acting and characterisation help to make up for this. Although Bong creates a well-realised sense of small-town Korean life, there is never any doubt that this is all about his mother, with her fragility-tinged fearlessness under almost constant scrutiny. And Bong perfects the neat trick of keeping the audience on her side even as her actions begin to take on the same dangerous and suspiciously sharp edge possessed by the wicked-looking blade she uses to chop herbs.

Hye-ja is beautifully understated in the central role and her subtle performance alone does much to take the edge off the film’s more hyperbolic twists and turns. Won Bin also convinces as the man-child, grappling with his own set of complex issues while trying to do as his mother tells him. Ultimately, tone isn’t everything and when it comes to tension and the unexpected, this mum’s the word.

Reviewed on: 09 Oct 2009
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A mother tries to prove her son's innocence.
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Director: Bong Joon Ho

Writer: Park Eun-kyo, Bong Joon Ho

Starring: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, Jin Gu

Year: 2009

Runtime: 129 minutes

Country: South Korea

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All About My Mother
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