Mother (2009) opens with the main actor, Kim Hye-ja, walking slowly toward the camera through a field. She walks slowly, visibly exhausted. But she walks with purpose, too. Then she stops and looks around, and the music starts, drums first. She begins to dance. The wind is blowing the grass, and she is swaying along with it, and her face is emotionless. It isn't what you expect from the opening of a Korean revenge film. It is strange and beautiful and sad.
Mother is about a woman who works hard to take care of her mentally disabled son. The movie deals with his disability in a frank way, showing his inability to care for himself, but also his struggle to be independent of her. And she gives him the freedom she can, but she clearly worries whenever he is off on his own. And those worries come true, in the inevitable way that worries always seem to.
Her son is eventually charged with murdering a young girl, because of circumstantial evidence. He's the easy answer for a small town that hasn't had to deal with a murder in years. He was seen near the crime, and he's not normal. Nobody normal could have committed an act like this, killing a young woman, posing her body on a rooftop in a confusing, clearly perverted way. He's not fit to defend himself against police questioning.
But she refuses to give up on him. She goes to the best lawyer in town and begs him to take the case. She hands out fliers, telling people her son is innocent. She even goes to the girl's funeral, half to pay her respects and half to defend her son. This is as disastrous as you expect, but it broke my heart, too. I do not have children, but I would do anything to protect my mother. I think that violence is never acceptable, but I would kill anyone who hurt her. So it is all too easy for me to fall in love with this character, a woman who will do anything to protect her son.
She doesn't give up. She does not even seem to view giving up as an option, and you can't help but wonder how much of this resilience she has built up over a lifetime raising a son with a disability. And it is compelling viewing even when protecting him is as straightforward as just trying to prove his innocence.
When a late movie twist calls his innocence into question, her doggedness survives the new information. She still does not give up, and she has to deal with an impossible choice between what is right and what she must do. Or rather, she has to deal with her guilt after making that impossible choice. Because she does not hesitate to commit horrible acts, even though her eyes are filling with tears. Her son needs her, and she doesn't see it as a choice at all.
At every turn, this movie was not what I expected. When we finally see what happened to the young woman, it is not bloody or perverted, it is a slow scene where we watch in horror as the son tries to understand what has happened and how to deal with it. This is a movie where violence is brief, and when it is horrific it is horrific because of how it affects people. The violence is devastating not because it is gory, but because it is so sad.