Mother Knows Best: Bong Joon-ho on Mother
Bong Joon-ho is a filmmaker who loves to upend audience expectations. After making The Host, South Korea's highest-grossing film of all time, he made the surprising decision to follow that blockbuster with Mother, an intimate study of a woman's obsessive love for her naive son, who becomes embroiled in a local murder. But the director insists this was always his plan. "I already had a storyline for Mother before I completed the scenario of The Host," Bong explains. "I prepared for this movie from 2004, so it depended on what I wanted to say rather than the scale of the movie. It was a personal line-up planned by my desire for expression." Mother also proves that Bong is a filmmaker who can turn his hand to any subject matter and make great cinema from it, but the film may never have happened if Kim Hye-ja, Bong's only choice for the lead role, turned him down. "I worried a lot because this movie could not be continued if she declined my offer," he says. "I made this story and scenario while thinking of Kim Hye-ja, so there was no substitute. Fortunately, she liked the story and said she would like to take the role, saying this role was different from other mothers she had performed, and I remember I breathed a sigh of relief when she said that."
It was a daring move by Bong, building his entire movie around an actress best-known for playing wholesome characters on Korean TV, but it pays off handsomely. There's an extraordinary intensity to Kim's performance, through which Bong hopes to explore the depth of emotion between mothers and their sons, and he cites the relationship Norman Bates had with his mother before her death in Psycho as an influence. "When love crosses a certain line it turns to obsession or madness and it also can be a sin," he says. "Basically, it starts as love, but it can be changed to something animal rather than humanlike – a growling tiger with its claws out to save her cub. It could be madness and brutality from the viewpoint of a human, and I would like to show something like that in this movie." Mother also allows Bong to once again examine the effect of violence on communities and families, a key theme in his films. "I’m a little faint-hearted and I’m afraid of violence," he admits. "In Korea, in which I spent my adolescence, the 1970s-80s were days of military dictatorship. In those days, violence was such an ordinary thing. We even had military training at school, so violence was a daily routine. There are still vestiges of it, and that’s why we can’t help being interested in the relationship between Korea and violence."
Despite the dark edge to his work, Bong finds room for moments of wry humour in Mother, displaying a rare gift for blending tones that has become something of a trademark for the director, and he claims this style comes quite naturally. "Actually, that kind of mix is my instinct. I have never arranged scenes intentionally, but it just mixes like that when it is complete," he explains. "I think that it is more natural, because emotions cannot be defined as just one. I insist that this way with mixed feelings is more realistic." Similarly, Bong claims his fondness for working in familiar genres is something that happens organically: "I’m not really conscious of the genre itself every time I work. My favourite genre lies inside myself, and as I follow my favourite stories, characters and images, it consequently ends up in a certain genre. So at times even I have to try to guess which genre it’ll be after production."
The next genre for Bong to tackle is science-fiction, with the screen version of French comic book Transperceneige, although he admits this adaptation has been a challenging process. "Now I’m alone working on the adaptation of Transperceneige, which is torturing me at times. When I’m stuck on it, I sometimes feel like killing everyone besides me and then killing myself," he jokes. Beyond that, Bong has ruled out involvement in any sequels or remakes to his earlier works, and is already planning future projects. "Personally, I’m much more inclined towards new stories and new films, so I don’t have any interest in sequels or remakes," he says, before adding, "There’s one particular project which I’m planning to work on after finishing Transperceneige. It’ll be such a unique one, I think." Somehow, we don't doubt him.