A dark tale about a mother who will go to extreme lengths to save her son, and a stunning blend of bewildering intensity, daring artistry and storytelling magic, Bong Joon-ho’s Mother was one of the highlights at the London Film Festival in October. Gladly, it is now already back on the big screen in the UK as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival, playing at the BFI, which is hosting a retrospective of Bong’s small but remarkable oeuvre so far. Mother features a striking central performance from Korean TV actress Kim Hye-ja as the vigilant mother whose 28-year-old son, a shy and mentally impaired young man, finds himself framed for murder. Although there is no real evidence against him, the police are eager to close the case, and his mother has no alternative but to get involved to prove his innocence. But how far will a mother go to save her son? And how did one of South Korea’s most promising young filmmakers, who recently smashed Korean box office records with monster movie The Host (2006) approach such a topic?
Pamela Jahn had the pleasure to take part in a round table interview of Bong Joon-ho at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival in May, where Mother had its world premiere in the non-competitive Un Certain Regard section.
Q: You’ve been working on this film for almost five years, yet it seems fuelled with burning passion from beginning to end.
A: Yes, I had the general idea for the story even before The Host and I wrote a first synopsis in early 2004. That was also when I first met the main actress, Kim Hye-ja. And the fact that we could finally work together as director and actress was an unbelievable experience for me. So even while I was working on The Host and on the episode I contributed to Tokyo! (2008), in the back of my head I was already working on Mother too.
Q: When did you make the decision to cast Kim Hye-ja in the lead role?
A: It was not like the usual procedure where after writing the script I start looking for an actress who might fit the role. It’s this actress who really inspired me and got me to write the story in the first place. She is not very well known abroad, but in Korea she is an almost mythical actress, like the ‘mother of the nation’, and I had been a fan of hers since I was little. The first time I met Hye-ja it was a little surreal actually, she was almost like a dreamer. She was completely different from what I had seen on TV. So in reaction to this I wanted to show her in a role that is completely the opposite of her TV appearances and express her personality from a different point of view, looking at the hysteria and madness that lie beneath the surface of her great gentleness and warmth.
Q: How much influence did Kim Hye-ja have in the development of her character in the film?
A: I met her on a regular basis while writing the script, often several times a month, and I took some pictures that helped me a lot writing the story and developing her role.
Q:Did you also have Won Bin in mind for the role of the son while working on the story?
A: No, it was only after I finished the script that I started looking for an actor to play the son. For this character I wanted someone who would fit with her, but also someone who could make her completely mad, and Won Bin turned out to be the perfect match.
Q:In both its tone and narrative structure, Mother is very different from the films you directed before, like Memories of Murder (2003) or The Host. Why this shift in direction?
A: In Memories of Murder I wanted to represent Korean society in the 80s when it was under military dictatorship, and I liked the fact that I was dealing with a number of different themes like the family and the system, and I was exposing Korean society and the military regime by looking into the serial killings. But I got a bit tired of what was mainly a stylistic exercise and a general denunciation. So in Mother I wanted to tell a story that could be seen almost as if through a magnifying glass where the light is so concentrated that it can burn paper. I wanted to find the essence of the story. So the relationship between mother and son is the focus, and every element in the story, from the murder in the village to some other minor incidents, is there to explore this relationship in its entirety. But if you look at the film on the whole, it is not just about motherhood and their relationship, it also hints at something greater again.
Q: Did you feel a lot of pressure while making the film given that it was your follow-up feature to The Host, which was the biggest box office hit in Korean film history?
A: To be honest, I am a little bit uncomfortable with that, and I really hope that there will be a Korean movie coming up soon to break the record. But it didn’t bother me while I was making Mother because I started working on the project way before The Host came out in Korea, so I could maintain the tone that I had intended for this film in the first place.
Q: Mother is very distinctive in style, especially in the way attention is paid to colour and locations, but there are also these wonderful moments when the mother somehow becomes isolated from the background. What was the main focus in terms of the aesthetics of the film?
A: I wanted to put the character in an extreme situation and find out how she would react. That was the most important thing for me, so everything had to fully focus on the mother character, including the style and look of the film but also the music. We had some wild discussions with the art director about the clothes that she wears and what colour could best describe her character and her thoughts. I think that the opening scene shows this very well – her madness and the feeling that she is completely out of this world. She is wearing these weird purple clothes and she is hiding her hand in her pocket. Then we hear the sound of her cutting herbs and we see blood on her finger… so, basically, it’s all in there: the fate, the tragedy and the madness. These are the main elements I tried to express in that first scene, but they also stand for the film as a whole.
Q: How is your relationship to your own mother? Did she serve as an inspiration here?
A: Well, she didn’t kill anybody [laughs]. Actually, she hasn’t seen the movie yet, and I am very excited but also a little bit worried because she also has a tendency to obsession. I mean, I am 40 years old and she is still constantly worried about me. So, yes, in some way my mother also inspired me in making the film I guess, but not primarily. And don’t tell her I said that.
Interview by Pamela Jahn