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Interview with Korean Film Director Bong Joon-ho on His Latest Film “Mother”

Jordan Wright
March 2010

Korean director/screenwriter Bong Joon-ho at the Ritz Carlton in Georgetown - photo by Jordan Wright

Korean-born Bong Joon-ho is one of the most seminal and controversial directors and screenwriters to emerge lately onto the international film scene. With two of the highest-grossing films in his country’s history, “The Host” and “Memories of a Murder”, he has enjoyed critical success at major worldwide film festivals, gaining US notoriety with the release of his latest venture, “Mother”, a grisly murder mystery reflecting deep oedipal themes, that was chosen as a Cannes Official Selection along with such notable directors as Ang Lee, Jane Campion, Pedro Almodovar, Werner Herzog and Terry Gilliam. A brilliant craftsman of the suspense genre his work recalls a number of classic filmmakers, yet he shows a remarkable social consciousness rarely addressed by the old masters.

Jordan Wright – I thought I sensed Hitchcock, Tarantino, Japanese director, Kurosawa, and Roman Polanski in your film, “Mother”. Who would you say are your greatest influences?

Bong Joon-ho – I was always inspired by Hitchcock…ever since I was young. I grew up watching so many of his films. He is a big influence of course. As a matter of fact during pre-production of “Mother” I was thinking of “Psycho” and I couldn’t stop wondering if the mother from “Psycho” had still been alive in the film would a little of that twisted mother/son relationship be similar to that relationship in “Mother”.

JW – There were so many different plots, counter-plots and sub-plots presented in your film. Notwithstanding the complexity of action, in the dizzying array of characters, each one was well developed and presented. Would you talk about the broader themes you conveyed in this film?

BJH – The broader theme of my film was how far would a mother actually go to clear her accused son’s name and the second one was the sexual theme in this film. As you know there is a little girl that is missing and throughout the neighborhood there is a whole history surrounding the disappearance of this girl and the sexual scandals revealed. I really wanted to portray that alongside the sexual hysteria of the crime. I thought of how the characters tried to help each other and I wanted to express how they actually end up hurting one another.

Each simple character in this film is powerless. They do not have money or authority. I wanted to portray how these individuals met and mingled and became tangled up through the very tragic force of their meeting. Case in point, the high school girl who sells her body for money to an older man and also the main character, Crazy JP, who has Down’s Syndrome and who is being accused of this crime. The mother knows all the relationships between these individuals and she is in agony trying to make sense of it. I wanted to show how they wind up hurting each other in a very tragic manner.

JW – The opening scene in which the hit-and-run Mercedes driver was discovered at the local country club seemed to touch on the class system still in place in Korea. How did Korea’s “Old Guard” receive your film?

BJH – There wasn’t really any negative feedback [in regards to that]. I think because my previous movie, “The Host”, was more of a parody on the US and I remember that conservatives were not thrilled with that film. But with “Mother” the core story was not controversial.

JW – In American culture we share many of the same social issues you have in Korea. Why was it important to you to highlight societal themes of malaise, lack of education, disenfranchisement, poverty, and the increase of youth violence?

BJH – Even in the past my films would always try to portray these individuals as outside the scope of government assistance. I hoped that by my focusing in on them I could bring attention to the faults or shortcomings of the system and bring awareness to a greater audience. I address this in my previous film, “The Host”. But in “Mother” I feel it is purely about the mother and her relationship with her son.

JW – Talk about your style of directing. Is it hands-on? Do you vary from the script or use the actor’s emotions in a scene to drive the result?

BJH – In my case I always write my own script and then do a storyboard. My storyboard has many details and I already have fixed the set-up position of the cameras and frames. But I always try to do something new and different on set and when I shoot I always hope to give the actors some kind of freedom.

I love the improvisation of the actors and also in regards to lighting and production design. I try to allow as much freedom and vitality for the actors to bring their characters to life. In my opinion the relationship between the actor and director is much more intimate and personal than that between cinematographer and actor, and you can never predict what is going to happen. I like to get to know the actors personally to discover what they’re really like.

JW – In future how do you see bringing your films to the US?

BJH – I enjoy the stable relationship that I have with Magnolia Pictures even though my films are not yet in wide release. Actually they [Magnolia] have recently purchased the copyrights of my very first film.

In my opinion there is currently a limit of how far foreign films can be widely received and appreciated. Hopefully in due time there will be a greater audience for subtitled foreign films and I really want to be a part, even if it is small, of how viewers in the US receive foreign films.

This interview was conducted, edited and condensed by Jordan Wright. For comments or questions contact [email protected].

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