Synopsis: Mother is a devoted single parent to her simple-minded twenty-seven-year-old son, Do-joon. Often a source of anxiety to his mother, Do-joon behaves in foolish or simply dangerous ways. One night, while walking home drunk, he encounters a school girl who he follows for a while before she disappears into a dark alley. The next morning, she is found dead in an abandoned building, and Do-joon is accused of her murder. An inefficient lawyer and an apathetic police force result in a speedy conviction. His mother refuses to believe her beloved son is guilty and immediately undertakes her own investigation to find the girl’s killer. In her obsessive quest to clear her son’s name, Mother steps into a world of unimaginable chaos and shocking revelations.
eyelights: the realistic, nuanced performances. the deep black humour. its offbeat quality.
eyesores: the grimness.
‘Madeo’ is a critically-acclaimed South Korean drama from 2009 by writer-director Bong Joon-ho, of ‘Gwoemul‘ fame. It competed at the 2009 Cannes Festival and it was South Korea’s official submission for the 2010 Academy Awards (it was not chosen).
The picture tells the story of a woman desperately trying to get her mentally deficient son off the hook for a murder she doesn’t believe he committed. It is mostly told from her perspective, as she tries to defend her son and collect evidence to free him.
It’s an interesting picture because it puts into question the justice system and vigilante justice at once, leaving the viewer unsure of which side to take. In the process, it also poses the question: Where would you draw the line to protect a loved one?
‘Madeo’ is backed by a deliciously dark sense of humour, which deflates some of its heaviness by highlighting just how ridiculously inept most of the players are. Although the subject matter is deathly serious, I found myself laughing out loud many a time.
The tone was established early on, when the son, Do-joon, first gets side-swiped by a passing vehicle and his mother comes running out to see if he’s okay, cutting herself in the process. She panics when she sees what she thinks is his blood, not realizing it’s her own.
Do-joon then chases after the reckless driver with his friend Jin-tae. When they find the culprit’s Mercedes Benz, neatly parked at a golf course, they decide to get revenge by kicking the mirrors off – with Do-joon failing miserably, crashing on the pavement instead.
Even the secondary characters show their ineptitude, for example when the cops pick up Do-joon for murder and immediately crash their car, or when the mother is taken to an appointment with her lawyer at a drunken karaoke evening with a few call girls.
‘Madeo’ is driven by terrific performances all around, but Kim Hye-ja, as the titular parent, is exceptional, bringing to the fore all of her character’s insecurities and foibles as well as her determination and implacability. It’s a multiple award-winning turn.
But it’s more than just a performance; the character is unforgettable.
Our first encounter with the character is a beautiful shot of her walking through an open field, stopping and swaying/dancing to the sound of a Spanish guitar. It immediately gave the picture an offbeat vibe, and suggested that the mother wasn’t entirely sane.
She clearly isn’t: tortured by guilt, feeling partly responsible for her son’s condition, under constant financial strain (her only income is from her illegal acupuncture practice), and constantly worried about her son’s welfare, the pressure has left her frazzled.
She also may not be the sharpest tool in the shed: although she is noticeably brighter than her son, either she is less intelligent than the average person or she is under such mental strain that she is unable to think clearly. Either way, she’s no Sherlock Holmes.
This is made abundantly clear when she finds the “murder weapon”, after sneaking around the “killer”‘s home, carries it through the rain with a plastic glove dangling on it and brings it to the police… only to discover that the blood marks on it are merely lipstick.
And clearly so. She just couldn’t tell the difference!
In a way ‘Madeo’ plays as a comedy of errors that have tragic consequences. Mistakes are consistently made and gross incompetence leads to poor choices, the repercussions of which are felt throughout the picture like a golf club to the head.
Contrasting all of this absurd chaos is the picture’s beautiful photography, transforming many a scene, even the drab ones, into cinematic postcards. There are countless gorgeous shots of the Korean landscapes and scenery on offer to tease the eye.
In the end, ‘Madeo’ is a terrific motion picture that stimulates us on a visceral, emotional and even intellectual level. It’s gritty and cynical, yes, but behind it all is a clear wink at the audience, allowing us to sit back and just enjoy the tale unburdened.
Its deepest, darkest secrets are well worth exploring.
Date of viewing: April 12, 2015