Bong Joon-ho: The Movieline Interview

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The titular mother of Mother -- the new film from South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, director of the 2006 creature thriller The Host -- is a ginseng seller and under-the-table acupuncturist, whose only child is a man in his early 20s, gifted with great looks but cursed with an under-developed mind. Her doting over the boy, who tends to get into trouble hanging out with his no-good friend, verges on the obsessional -- they share a home, every meal, and a bed at night. Then comes her worst nightmare: before her eyes, her son is snatched away by cops, as he was the last person seen with a local promiscuous teen found dead that morning. Thus commences to churn a hurricane of a performance from Korean national treasure Kim Hye-ja, perfectly cast as a frantic parent running on nothing but adrenaline and desperation in a race to find the real murderer. It's a crackerjack of a thriller. Movieline sat down recently with Joon-ho for a lively discussion about moms and monsters; it turns out the two are not always mutually exclusive.

[Photo credit: Flickr]

I want to start by talking about this idea of motherhood as it applies to modern Korea. Would you say it's a predominantly matriarchal society?

I'm sure mothers are important across every culture, but particularly in Korean society, the role of the mother is of great importance. The mother's love for her child is very strong in Korean society -- almost on the borderline of being an obsession.

Did you want to subvert that or play with people's expectations of that with this film?

I see it as having two layers. In one aspect, to show the mother's affection through Kim Hye-ja's character. She has an iconic role as a national mother, the people's mother. The image of that mother is something that the Korean audience is very familiar with. So I wanted to show the familiar side, but also the unfamiliar side. That actress has never explored this dark craziness before, and that was very shocking to Korean audiences.

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[Caution: Host spoilers] Speaking of shocking, both The Host and now Mother contain a lot of the unexpected. I'm thinking of the death of the young heroine in Host, and some of the more Oedipal material in Mother. Do you enjoy springing surprises on your audiences?

I don't intentionally make my films with the express goal of surprising the viewer. In the case of The Host, I think the death of the little girl was very sad and very cruel, but you don't see it simply as a death. In terms of the meaning of the movie, it's not just a death, it's a sacrifice she makes for the young boy she's caring for throughout the movie. Her death brings the boy together with her father. In the case of Mother, of course it's quite strange and weird that a mother and her old son would sleep together in one bed. But even though it seems that way, it's not supposed to have an incestuous tone.

But he grabs at her breast at one point.

Yeah. That is a very Korean way of demonstrating mother and son's kinship.

It is?

Yeah. [At this point the translator gives him a strange look, eliciting a big laugh from all three of us.] But he was too old to do that. He is a little bit dumb and a little bit of a retarded guy. It's not ordinary behavior.

But a boy might?

Yeah, a small boy might do that. But to show the grownup son doing that is just to emphasize the childlike qualities of him, not the fact that he has a sexual attraction to the mom or anything.

And not the other way -- mother towards son.

Right.

What are some of the other films about motherhood that inspired you to make Mother?

Because the foundation of the story is based on a murder case, there weren't many that I could go to that referenced both motherhood and murder. I was in Paris last week for French promotion of this film, and quite a few French journalists asked my about Mamma Roma by Pier Paulo Pasolini. But I haven't seen the movie, so yesterday I bought the DVD. And maybe the British director Mike Leigh, he made a few years ago called Vera Drake. The title is the name of a UK British mother in wartime. The movie is quite good, and her performance is excellent. It's the story of a mother who committed some crimes. Very different but still quite impressive.

Well the movie that I immediately thought of was Psycho.

Ah, exactly.

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