Bong Joon-ho talks “Mother”: A BYT Interview

Bong Joon-ho is a director with big expectations to fulfill. His previous feature-length film, The Host, was a blockbuster in his native South Korea, and had worldwide success on the art-house circuit. His follow-up is Mother, the story of a devoted parent who will stop at nothing to protect her dim-witted son – even when he gets accused of murder. Like The Host, Mother has pathos and thrills in equal measure. Anchored by Kim Hye-ja in an excellent central performance, the movie finds ways to confound expectations (often in the same scene).

For those who don’t mind uncomfortable conclusions and disturbing content, Mother is a superb thriller, one that’ll inspire a wide variety of passionate reactions. Given the power of his work, I quickly accepted the opportunity to interview the director. With the help of an interpreter, Bong Joon-ho was thoughtful and engaging, imparting me  with a desire to revisit his older movies.

BYT: When did the idea for Mother first arrive?

BJ-h: It was back in 2004, shortly after Memories of a Murder wrapped up. So many reporters were asking me, “Who do you want to work with on your next project?” And the answer was always Kim Hye-ja, the lead actor in Mother. I remember watching her while growing up – on TV she would always be there. She really is a legendary actor in Korea. As an actor for over forty years, she really is an iconic figure. With Mother, I wanted to depict her in a totally new light, the opposite of what she’s known for best. Instead of the typical process where a director finishes a script and then works on casting, I wrote the part for her right from the get-go. Had she turned down this role, there never would have been Mother. Replacing her with another actor was out of the question.

How is her past work different than her role in Mother, and what made you think she’s right for the part?

She’s been one of the longest-running TV dramas in Korea. She’s famous for portraying a heartwarming, loving mother. I wanted to bring out a different side of her. Instead of the conventional mother role she’s been taking, for some reason I saw this different side of her – a psychotic madness. I could see a dark side in her.

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Both Mother and The Host feature parents who protect outcast characters. What about such a dynamic appeals to you?

When you watch loser characters like as the weak and the powerless, there is drama when they are forced into a desperate situation. Think of the reverse a situation – a person who has everything, has all the power. I think it’s impossible to create real drama for these types. Many such stories offer characters simple solutions, and I don’t want such possibilities for my characters.

Desperation is an important theme in your work, yet you have funny scenes in addition to tragic ones. What did you hope these shifts in tone would achieve in the viewer’s mind?

Think of a bartender. When he makes a drink, the proportions are perfect. The portions of rum and mixer work well together. The same is true for me when I’m making a movie. I don’t necessarily think about how much of it I want to be funny or sad or suspenseful. My main focus is on character and plot – I think about how incidents play out. Looking at [the movie] from a larger perspective, it’s like how life is, a combination of all these different feelings. For example, there’s a scene in Mother when the son is trying to kick the side mirror of a car and he falls on his face. I don’t necessarily think that it’s funny, or that audiences will think it’s a joke. Instead I think his fall is something that could happen, just like in everyday life. I’d rather film the scene as if I’m a documentary filmmaker, someone who happens upon interesting incidents.

Is there anything in Mother that happened by accident which you later decided to keep?

But that’s the beauty of film-making! Unless you’re making an animated film, something unexpected will always happen. Ok, well I’m not sure if you’re going to remember because it’s a very small scene, but there’s a moment after Mother returns home drunk after meeting with her attorney. She goes to the bathroom and…

the toilet lid falls on her head!

Exactly [laughs]. You remembered! Well that moment was very real, so of course I kept it in.

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How do reactions to Mother differ among South Korean and western audiences?

Prior to my visit to the USA, I was Japan and France for the premier of Mother. I encountered similar reactions from different kinds of audience members. Maybe that’s because fundamentally the movie is about a mother/son relationship, a theme with universal appeal. Just a few days ago, I was attending Mother‘s New York premiere, and a young guy in his late twenties gave me a letter. The letter talked in detail about his relationship with his own mother, and after reading the letter (which I still have), I thought regardless of where you’re from, feelings are consistent because viewers will think of their mother when they see this film.

You said this movie has universal appeal, but I imagine a mother and son going together would have very different reactions to its plot.

[laughs] Well after my own mother saw this movie back in May 2009, she stopped talking about it with me. And when I was in Boston, I was giving brief remarks to the audience before the screening began, and I told them to think of their moms as they watch this movie. Still, I do NOT recommend watching it with your own mother [laughs]. Thankfully I’ve heard of no tension among audiences seeing this film. Its whole purpose was to dig deeper, to investigate the passions and emotions in the mother/son relationship, which is where my primary focus was. So yeah, even if there is any potential awkwardness, it won’t really bother me.

Was Kim Hye-Je involved in the screenwriting process?

No, but upon reading the script for the first time, her initial reaction was impressive and memorable. She said, “I don’t see this relationship, this mother/son relationship, as one between two humans. Instead I see it from an animalistic, primal perspective.” She said she got the impression of her character is like a beast. It reminded her of an growling animal baring its teeth, trying to protect her baby. In fact, her reaction inspired me. Looking at the relationship from her view, there is no morality or good/evil dynamic. It’s more primeval, a basic instinct.

One last question. I heard from [Magnolia pictures] that Mother might screen at the White House tomorrow.

The White House? Really? [laughs]

Yup! I was wondering if you could give President Obama a message before seeing the movie, what would it be?

Of course I’m very proud of this movie, but it’s not good for the White House. Maybe they’re confused and think it’s some kind of warm family drama?

Who knows? Maybe he likes his movies dark.

Well, this makes me very happy! It’s great President Obama shows an interest in South Korea, so this is pleasant news. I just hope he’s ready. It’s an extreme, dark movie. Someone should tell him this before he sits down to watch it. You know, a producer of Mother and Memories of Murder once met Obama before he became President, and he told her he saw The Host! So I like to think he’s a fan of my work.

Me, too. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

No, thank you!

Mother opens at E Street today. Do yourself a favor and check it out.