Despite their rising prominence at festivals and among true cinephiles, Korean films have yet to find the type of success in the United States as imports from other counties, and yet, there are a couple directors whose names are held in the highest esteem among their Western peers. For a long time, Park Chan-Wook was the Korean filmmaker everyone cited, but a few years ago, Bong Joon-ho created a unique take on the monster movie called The Host, which was an enormous hit in Korea and got genre movie fans very excited for what he might do next.
It’s been almost three years to the date since director Bong’s film opened in the United States and now he’s back with Mother, a very different movie that harks back to his earlier film Memories of Murder. It involves an overprotective mother, played by beloved Korean television actor Kim Hye-ja, whose slightly dimwitted son Do-Joon (Won Bin) is arrested, accused of murdering a local girl, sending the panicked mother on a quest to find out the truth and get her son released back into her care.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to chat with Director Bong at the Toronto Film Festival last September.
ComingSoon.net: This movie goes back to some of the themes from “Memories of Murder”–a murder in a small village and it also deals with memory–so what made you want to exploring those themes again? Was this something you thought of back when you were making that movie?
Bong Joon-ho: I think my intentions were not to go back to “Memories of Murder” but my main theme was about the mother and in the process of directing this film, the whole thing about the rustic environment and the police that sort of brings back elements of the previous film, but its main intention was not to go back to that film. So I guess the mood that surfaces, it’s sort of similar, but the direction that the film takes is different from the previous film.
CS: I have to ask, but do you yourself have a mother who you feel is a bit overprotective which might have influenced you to explore that type of character?
Bong: (laughs) I have a feeling that because I’m holding interviews overseas, I can be a little more honest with myself, because I know my mother isn’t going to read those articles, so I can be a little more open. Parts of the character in the movie somewhat resemble my mother, so I felt the most nervous when my mother was at the premiere in Korea, more than at any other international film festival.
CS: I would be, too! What was her reaction when she saw the movie? Did she say, “What are you doing making a movie about me?”
Bong: There was no reaction. During three or four months after that, we met several times. Whenever we met, we never talked about the movie, it was some kind of taboo between us. I don’t know why. (laughs)
CS: I always wondered how filmmakers’ parents reacted because you always want to share your work with your parents in general and you want them to be proud of you, but I wondered how she might react especially to a movie like this, which is a more personal movie that women might enjoy more than a big monster movie.
Bong: It seems like my parents like “Memories of Murder” the most. When they watch “The Host,” the liked it but they were worried whether other people were going to like the movie. So my first feature film, which was “The Barking of the Dog,” they, especially my father, didn’t really like the movie.
CS: But you can’t just make movies for your parents, can you? I’d expect you’d want to make movies for everyone. Do you come from a small village originally? I always assumed you lived in Seoul, but do you have experiences with that life beforehand?
Bong: Until the end of elementary school, I lived in a suburban area, so the type of village I used to live in is borderline between village and the city, so I’m familiar with the rustic environment. So when you watch the film, it seems like the film is shot in one rural place but it’s actually shot in 23 different villages, so they’re all different from each other.
CS: I wanted to ask about that because there are a lot of locations very specific like when the mother is hiding outside the house of her son’s friend so I imagine you had to travel around a lot to find what you needed.
Bong: When I was writing the script, I was writing it with certain elements of the scenery so my location manager actually had a very difficult time trying to figure out where we can shoot certain scenes, because he had specific ideas about where the scene is supposed to take place, so it was a very difficult job. The reason why it took 23 different locations was because we wanted it to be exact to the point in terms of portraying the specific scenes. So the pinnacle point of the film was where the mother actually goes to the roof of the building where you can oversee the entire city at night where the corpse was hanging over the edge of the building. That was the pinnacle scene of the film, so that was the most difficult place to find. The place was actually Pusan, one of the cities in Korea, but the building where the corpse was hung over, that was actually made artificially by the production company but then the rest of the place that you see in the film, that’s real.
CS: I was curious whether you ended up building stuff on stages or in those location.
Bong: The only studio sets in the film were the house where the mother and son live, the prison, as well as the building we were talking about where the corpse was hanging over, that was built, but that wasn’t really a set, but the rest was just organic.
CS: How long do you take developing a script like this? It could take a long time to figure out the visuals and the locations and how long did it take you to find the actress to play the mother?
Bong: What’s really interesting about this film is that it was custom-written with a specific actress in mind, so the starting point was this actress as the mother, because I’ve wanted to work with her. I made the film specifically for her, so let’s just say that if she declined the script, there would have been no film.
CS: It was an amazing performance, so it makes sense you wrote it for. I’m not really familiar with her work, was she a TV actress? Where did you first see her?
Bong: She only did two movies before this one over 30 years, but a lot of TV dramas. She’s very famous and a legend in Korea. This actress has been known to be the stereotypical Korean mother with a very warm and kind heart, but I’ve wanted to explore the dark, more psychological side of this actress as a mother figure, so that’s why I’m sure Korean audiences will perceive this as a rather shocking experience to be her, because they’re not used to seeing her in that sort of role. The idea of this film was first introduced to the main actress in 2004, so it’s been quite a while since the initial idea was introduced to her, so the screenplay has evolved from 2004 until now, because it wasn’t like it was written and complete, but it has evolved but parts of it were done throughout in four years, because “The Host” was filmed in the interim, and there was the “Shaking Tokyo” short, that was filmed in between, too.
CS: What was your pitch and how did you first approach her? If you did that after making “The Host,” I assume she’d say, “Oh, he’s a big filmmaker” but you approached her before having the big hit.
Bong: When I first introduced the idea, she was really open to the idea of meeting me, because she had seen my other film “Memories of a Murder.” Even though the script was not complete at that time, I knew what the ending was going to be like, so when I told her about the ending of the story in about five to ten minutes, she actually liked the idea of portraying the destructive side of the mother. The reason why that side of the character was so appealing to her was that because she had been playing this warm-hearted kind mother figure her entire career basically.
CS: Do you have any problems with censors in Korea compared to filmmakers in China or Hong Kong?
Bong: There’s hardly any governmental censorship in Korea. Since like the mid-1990s, especially political censorship, it’s banished pretty much, but in terms of the sex scenes or the racier scenes in the movie, had been pretty free even prior to the 1990s, so there isn’t much censorship.
CS: Do they have any kind of ratings board saying specific ages can or can’t see a movie?
Bong: We have the same ratings. “Mother” has been rated PG-18, “The Host” for example has been rated PG-13.
CS: I think they were both R-rated here. Since the movie has already played in Korea, how was it perceived there coming after “The Host,” aside from her performance and how shocking it was?
Bong: The movie critics seemed to perceive it as very positive and great, but it seems like the younger generation audience, they seemed to be taken aback because they were expecting something similar to “The Host” where it’s more entertaining than dark. It seems like a lot of girls and mothers liked the movie, so I guess the younger guys seemed to be taken aback more than the rest of the population.
CS: Maybe they had overprotective mothers themselves and could relate too well to the story.
CS: Do you have any idea what you’re going to do next? I know you were looking at a French comic book to adapt, which I assume will be a bigger FX piece?
Bong: I’m going to make a sci-fi movie based on a French graphic novel called “Le Transperneige,” even French people have trouble saying it. It’s not an every day word. It seems like the new film, it’s about the new age, the people who are going to be living on this train and they end up fighting with each other, because they’re all crammed on this train. I’ll be directing that movie and Park Chan-wook is going to be producing.
CS: Will it be shot in Korea with all Korean actors like your last few films?
Bong: Korean actors, English actors, Japanese actors, French actors, all together.
CS: And is it going to be in English?
Bong: 50% of the script is going to be in English.
CS: I spoke to director Park for “Thirst” a few months back, and I know he produced “Crush and Blush,” which was written by the same person who co-wrote “Mother.” Since I last spoke to you, has the Korean film industry generally been coming together with more interaction between the filmmakers in the country?
Bong: Director Park was actually my senior in school, so that’s why naturally, we’ve become more friends then just business partners, but he has a new production company so we’re all there interacting with each other, that’s how the idea came up and we decided to work together. Me and Park Chan-Wook and Kim Ji-woon are quite close to each other and we sometimes borrow each other’s DVD titles and never give them back. We steal each other’s DVDs.
CS: So next time I speak with either directors Park or Kim, I’ll ask them which DVDs they’re missing and vice versa.
Bong: (laughs) Director Kim has three DVDs of mine and he hasn’t returned them, so please ask him.
(Unfortunately, we haven’t spoken to Kim Ji-Woon since Toronto a year earlier, an interview you’ll be able to read next month before his movie The Good, The Bad and the Weird finally is released.)
Mother opens in New York and L.A. on Friday and in other cities after that.