A Conversation with Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon-ho, courtesy of the author

By Hye Jean Chung

The synopsis of Mother, the latest film from award-winning Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, whose filmography includes the critically acclaimed and widely popular films, The Host (2006) and Memories of Murder (2003), is deceptively simple: The titular character is a devoted single parent (Kim Hye-ja) who lives with her twenty-seven-year-old, mentally-challenged son, Do-joon (Won Bin), and takes care of him with a passion that tinges on obsession. When he is arrested by the local police and charged with murdering a teenage girl, her maternal instincts attain a primal intensity as she begins her desperate mission to prove his innocence by finding the real killer. She faces obstacles in the guise of an indifferent police force that bullies a confession out of Do-joon, and a pompous lawyer with a bloated sense of self-importance.

The film shares similarities with Bong’s previous films, which often reveal the dark side of Korean society through satire and irony, such as the inefficient and ineffective nature of government institutions and local bodies of power. In terms of genre, Mother is most closely related to Memories of Murder; both are murder mysteries where the narrative is propelled forward by the quest to find the identity of the killer. Mother is also reminiscent of The Host in its depiction of a dysfunctional family and its focus on a portrait of monstrosity found in the context of contemporary Korea. Although the monster in Mother is less visible and more difficult to identity than that of The Host, its presence is no less palpable. In fact, it is the banality of monstrosity in Mother that frightens, leaving behind a lingering aftertaste of malaise long after the empty-eyed faces of Do-joon and his mother fade from view.

Chung: My favorite scenes in the film are the first and last sequences, both showing Kim Hye-ja [a famous and well-respected Korean actress who plays the main protagonist] and other women dancing. It’s visually striking and humorously quirky, especially considering the dark intensity of what happens throughout the rest of the film. Could you tell us a bit about how you directed Kim Hye-ja for those scenes, and what you asked her to do or portray?

Bong: The opening sequence is quite unexpected because Kim Hye-ja suddenly starts dancing in an open field, without any context. I wanted to make the audience a bit bewildered in the beginning, to make them think, “this film is a bit strange,” and also to realize that this woman is slightly crazy, or to anticipate that they will see her slowly losing her sanity throughout the film. And the audience won’t realize the significance of the setting until much later in the film. When you see Kim’s expression in the scene, you can tell that she is not dancing out of feelings of joy. When we were shooting that scene, rather than her dance moves, our focus was on how to portray the sensation of losing one’s sanity, and the experience of feeling dazed and stupefied through Kim’s facial expression. We didn’t really choreograph her dance moves; they were improvised.

The last sequence is quite different because it was shot in an enclosed space filled with a crowd of women. And I wanted to shoot the scene in a silhouette, and to show the women as one shadowy mass, so you wouldn’t be able to pick out Kim Hye-ja amongst the crowd, and to get the sense that all those women each have a story to tell. The situation is also very “Korean,” because there aren’t a lot of countries in the world where older women dance on buses in a group like that. A Turkish-American journalist came up to me once during a film festival in New York and told me that women in Turkey do the same thing. Before that I thought this happened only in Korea. When I was younger, I would watch those dancing women and think, if I ever make a film about a mother, I would include a scene showing older women dancing on a bus like them. I used to think it was an unsightly scene when I was young, but now I’m older and have a child of my own, I can understand the complicated mix of emotions that makes them want to do that.

Kim Hye-Ja in Mother.

Chung: There must have been a lot of pressure after the incredible success of The Host for your next film. What drew you to the story of Mother, especially at this stage in your career?

Bong: The success of The Host was rather unexpected, so there was a bit of pressure, but actually I prepared the story of Mother long before The Host. After Memories of Murder, in 2003, when journalists asked me which actor I wanted to work with, I answered that I wanted to work with Kim Hye-ja. She saw the newspaper articles and contacted me in person. In 2004, I already had started writing the script for Mother, and continued working on it while making The Host. So Mother had nothing to do with the success of The Host, because I had always planned to make this film afterward. I didn’t want to direct two large-scale films in a row, and preferred to make a smaller, more concentrated film.

Won Bin in Mother.

Chung: I loved the film, but (and this might be a very subjective reaction) I felt an overwhelming sense of despair after watching it.

Bong: It is a dark film. [laughs]

Chung: I actually like dark films! But I was quite struck by the detachment I felt from the two main characters. They aren’t characters that necessarily elicit sympathy or empathy. For instance, you can find similarities between Gang-du in The Host and Do-joon in Mother because they are both mentally challenged, but Gang-du is a much more sympathetic figure. To be honest, Do-joon is rather creepy, with an almost ominous air. In fact, Do-joon reminds me more of the monster than Gang-du in The Host.

Bong: Do-joon does leave you with a strange, queasy feeling. [laughs] I think in The Host, there’s a clear distinction between the good and the bad. The family members in The Host are powerless and seem foolish and clueless at times, but they are good, honest people who are all quite lovable. So they elicit feelings of sympathy and make you want to root for them and stand by their side. Meanwhile, the monster and the monstrous entities of power that persecute them elicit feelings of animosity.

But there’s no clear dichotomy in Mother. The mother character is quite extreme, and goes beyond what most people want to know or see about motherhood. But for me, that was the allure of this film. I wanted to go to extremes, to go as far as I could beyond the precipice, and to not be afraid. There was no hesitation for me. But I don’t want to make films like this all the time, or I’d fear for my mental health. [laughs] Just like actors, directors also immerse themselves in the story and the emotions of the film, so it was difficult for me as well toward the end.

In The Host, the characters try to help one another, despite their own weakness. I didn’t recognize this until much later, while I was actually making the film, but in Mother, I realized that the story is about weak people hurting one another, such as the mentally challenged Do-jun and the dead girl, Ah-jung. So the darkness that you mentioned is inherent in the structures of society, but I think that’s also part of reality. So I wanted to portray that in at least one of my films.

Chung: You said once in a previous interview that you’ve always been fascinated with “the concept of chaos” from a philosophical perspective.

Bong: Did I say that? [laughs]

Chung: Well, that’s what I read. In The Host, you at least gave the audience the possibility of a happy ending and a sense of restored order, however precarious and illusory. But in Mother, it seems that there never was an order to be restored in the first place, that reason and logic fail, that chaos is inevitable.

Bong: Yes, The Host ends with the main character having dinner with his adopted son. But Mother is rife with misunderstandings and miscommunication. There’s also an eating sequence in Mother toward the end, but it’s not a scene of domestic happiness: it’s almost a living hell that you cannot escape.

Chung: You mentioned the “Korean” quality of the dance sequence earlier. But your films appeal to both local and international audiences, and you’re one of the few Korean filmmakers whose films are theatrically released overseas. Do you have a certain target audience in mind when you make your films?

Bong: To be honest, I make films to please and satisfy myself. [laughs] While making films, I don’t think in terms of whether this would appeal to a Korean audience, or whether that would be funny to an international audience, since I’m too busy trying to tell a story that I want to tell. But there is this. For instance, I mentioned the dancing sequence on the bus earlier. People who are not familiar with that in their own national context might read it as a surreal experience or an illusion. But that does not faze me. Even if you haven’t been to New York, when you watch a Woody Allen film, you can imagine what it’s like to be on Fifth Avenue or Central Park, or understand the neurotic personality of New Yorkers as depicted in the film. Since 2000 or so, people who are interested in Korean films have become more familiar with elements of Korean society than we think. So even when translating subtitles, I encourage literal translations that retain the “strangeness” of the Korean language. Although mainstream audiences outside of Korea might still be unfamiliar with Korean cinema, there are also many fans in the film festival crowd who see a lot of Korean films, by filmmakers such as Kim Ki-duk, Hong Sang-soo, Park Chan-wook, Lee Chang-dong, and Kim Ji-woon, so I don’t think Koreans should worry that international audiences will not understand Korean culture as portrayed in films.

Chung: I heard that your next project is based on a French science fiction graphic novel [Jean-Marc Rochette and Jacques Loeb’s Le Transperceneige]. Could you tell us a bit about it? Is it called Snow Piercer in English?

Bong: Yes, the English working title is Snow Piercer. It’s a science fiction action film that is set on a train, which is kind of similar to Noah’s Ark, because the film is set in a post-apocalyptic world that is completely frozen over. So the train is filled with survivors, and the dramatic tension arises from the struggles and fights among them.

Chung: I heard there will a mixed cast–with actors from various countries.

Bong: The train will be filled with people from all around the world, so there will be a wide variety of ethnicities and nationalities. It’s highly probable that I’ll be casting actors from Korea, Japan, France and the U.S., and I anticipate about half of the film will be in English.

Chung: I was curious where the film will be set, since it’s a train that hurtles through a post-apocalyptic world.

Bong: The train will travel through a large number of countries. Since it’s a science fiction film, it could be set anywhere. It could even travel across oceans through underwater tunnels. (laughs)

Chung: Where are you planning to shoot your film?

Bong: I haven’t finished writing the script, so the details of the production haven’t been decided. A lot of the scenes on the train will be filmed on a set. As for the external scenes, the location managers are considering several possibilities–places that are cold and snowy around five to six months out of the year.

Chung: Did your experience of working in Japan to shoot the segment that was included in Tokyo! (2008) increase your desire to make more films abroad?

Bong: Shaking Tokyo was a short film that lasted only 30 minutes, but it was the first time that I shot a film overseas. I intentionally went to Japan by myself, without any Korean crew or cast members, and I purposefully created an environment where everyone I was working with were Japanese, because I was curious what it’d be like. But really, maybe because it was Japan, I didn’t find the experience of working with a Japanese crew or working on location that different from Korea. I didn’t face many obstacles or difficulties, and I had a good time.

Honestly I was most curious about working with Japanese actors, because I don’t speak Japanese. All the lines were in Japanese, so I didn’t know what to expect while working with Japanese actors and a script entirely in Japanese. Even if they made a mistake, I wouldn’t know. When I work with Korean actors, I discuss with them in minute detail the subtleties of each word and its connotations, and we try out different ways of saying the same line. So I was a bit nervous what it would be like to work in a language I didn’t understand. But I felt that it was ultimately the same, because we’re dealing with the same range of human emotions. Once we bonded over that commonality, it was quite easy working with the Japanese actors. Later on, even though I still didn’t understand Japanese, I was able to catch the mistakes. If I think about it now, I’m not sure how I was able to do that then. Maybe it was because I was concentrating so intently at the time, but at times I didn’t even have to wait for the translator to explain. That made me realize that it wasn’t that different to make films in a foreign context, with foreign actors, as long as you can relate to them on the level of emotions.

Hye Jean Chung is a doctoral candidate in film studies at UC Santa Barbara. She is currently working on a dissertation project that focuses on location shooting and digitally manipulated visual effects in transnational filmmaking. She has also worked as a translator and a journalist in South Korea. She can be contacted here.


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