LFF '09: 'Don't Worry About Me' and 'Mother'

David Morrissey is one of our favorite actors: his performances in the original “State of Play,” and particularly the “Red Riding” trilogy, are spectacularly good, even if his Hollywood movies haven’t always been great. He also does a huge amount of good for the British film industry, as a patron and a mentor. Unfortunately, one of those things is not his big screen directorial debut, “Don’t Worry About Me.”

Like fellow festival movie “Kicks,” “Don’t Worry About Me” is part of the Digital Departures program, a series of digital features, designed to commemorate Liverpool’s year as the European Capital of Culture. Morrissey grew up in Liverpool , and the film serves as a love letter to his hometown, focusing on the city in much the same way as Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” document Vienna and Paris. Indeed, the film owes a lot to Linklater’s movies – following a man and a woman over the course of a day, and just as Linklater co-wrote Sunset with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, Morrissey has helped actors James Brough and Helen Elizabeth to adapt their stage play “The Pool” into a screenplay.

David (Brough) is a young Londoner, who follows a one-night stand back to Liverpool on a whim, only to be spectacularly rebuffed. Trying to get together some money for the journey home, he ends up falling in with Tina (Elizabeth), a young woman who works in a betting shop, who offers to show him round the city. And, that’s about it. Not that that would necessarily be a bad thing: films such as Linklater’s, Claire Denis’ “Vendredi Soir” and even the recent “Medicine for Melancholy,” have all let their whole running time run on relatively thin material such as this.

The trouble is, these films all had compelling characters to hang on. David and Tina, unfortunately, are rather thin and unlikeable, and, even in a fairly brief running time, they become tedious. Elizabeth is fine, if a little uncharismatic, as Tina, but Brough is quite poor as the other half as the couple. Part of the problem is that his character is fairly repellent – he’s meant to come off as flawed-but-interesting, but behaves so badly at the midpoint of the film that you lose all interest. But Brough also seems inexperienced, somehow – you’d think he was a non-professional, rather than an actor who developed the character, and inhabited him on stage for years. In an effort to summon up some drama, the plot chucks in a number of soapy crises in the closing section of the movie: disability, abortion, everything but the kitchen sink. It’s clear that Morrissey has a good visual eye, but, unfortunately, the material simply isn’t strong enough, and it marks a big step back from his TV directing work. [C-]

In happier news, “Mother,” the new film from Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho, coming off the excellent crossover hit “The Host,” is as good as his previous works. Closer to his serial-killer masterpiece “Memories of Murder” than the aforementioned monster movie, the picture combines a procedural whodunnit thriller with a family drama, and lashings of Joon-Ho’s trademark out-there humour.

Indeed the movie opens with probably our favorite credits sequence of the year: the central character dances alone in a field. It’s a hilarious and offbeat way to start the film (and may well throw some audiences), but come the conclusion of the picture, we realize how heartbreaking it really is. Hye-ja (an exceptional performance by Kim Hye-ja) is devoted to her mentally disabled son Do-Joon (Weon Bin), but, when he’s accused of the murder of a schoolgirl, she proves exactly how devoted she is.

Perhaps our favorite quality of Joon-Ho’s movies is their unpredictability, their refusal to let you get ahead of the game, and, in “Mother,” it’s as true as ever, both in the plotting of the movie, and in its style. The director plays around with the form, but it never feels like he’s showing off, it always serves the story – for instance, a rather haunting scene in a Ferris wheel, where the dead girl comes to life for a brief moment, is one of the best scenes of the year. The characters are equally difficult to pin down – Do-Joon’s best friend Jin-tae (Jin Gu) is particularly fascinating, vacillating between being likable and unsympathetic often in the space of the same sentence, but always keeping the balance perfectly.

It maybe doesn’t quite hit the heights of “Memories of Murder” and “The Host”: its attitude to the mentally disabled character is a little… unreconstructed, while it drags a little in its closing section, packing in maybe one too many stings in the tail. But, as a whole, it’s one of the most relentlessly entertaining and consistently surprising movies of the year. [A-]