Let me start by saying, I really liked this film. In this wonderful Korean thriller, the central character is a single Mother (never named) played with infinite layers by the amazing Hye-ja Kim. Mother works in an herb store and gives illegal acupuncture treatments on the side. As the film begins she is in her shop keeping watch on her 27-year-old son, Do-joon who is hanging out across the street with his much hipper friend Jin-tae. Do-joon is not right in the head; he is forgetful, possibly developmentally disabled, and seems to spend most of his time running around getting into trouble. In this first scene, he steps into the street and is grazed by a car, causing his friend to vow revenge on the rich guys who did it and this one moment spins out of control coloring the rest of the film.
That night, Do-joon goes out alone and gets drunk. The next day, a girl is found murdered, and witnesses say they saw him following her. The police pick him up and before you know it, he has signed a confession. Mother knows he didn’t do it, but he can’t remember what happened. Nevertheless, he is thrown in jail. Somehow Mother hires a very well connected lawyer, but his brilliant suggestion is to let Do-joon go to a mental hospital for a few years instead of jail. Mother is having none of it and takes it upon herself to find the real killer.
This thriller is played pretty low key and straight (though there are flashes of comedy throughout), and there are many places that make you hold your breath or jump from your seat. The director Joon-ho Bong peels back the layers of this story slowly but in such an engaging fashion, the twists seem to come entirely unforced. The schoolgirl Ah-jung who was murdered was not what she seemed. Mother and Do-joon share some secrets that are better left unknown. And by the time you get to the end of this murder mystery, your perceptions have been churned to pulp.
There was something about this film that felt very European to me and I mean that as a compliment. None of the characters are what they seem on first glance. Every little story point is not tied up and there is a lot of gray when it comes to right and wrong. As tortured as Mother’s logic becomes, it feels real. It is a smart script and it is beautifully shot. See it in a theater if you can. I recommend it to Hitchcock lovers everywhere.