Joon-ho Bong is the creative mind behind new dramatic, thriller Mother, starring Hye-ja Kim as an obsessive mother on a mission to clear her mentally handicapped son’s name of a murder. Bong both wrote and directed this murder mystery which that the generic crime, murder mystery and turns it into something completely new and intriguing to watch. We were lucky enough to have a chance to sit down to a roundtable with Bong and discuss the film along with his current project the English remake of the wildly successful Korean film The Host.
Note: Joon-ho Bong had an interpreter, which is why this interview is written in the third person. As a warning, there are a few spoilers in the interview (which are all clearly marked). I suggest that if you plan on seeing the film, you skip over those questions as a certain it will destroy some of the twists that occur.
How did you develop the concept for the film?
Joon-ho Bong: The mother character, Kim-ja, it was for her actually. He really wanted to work with her so that’s how this story evolved from him wanting to work with her. She started acting before he was born, but he remembers seeing her on TV as a sort of mother figure. She played a great mother. He wanted to take a different approach with her and give her a crazy, sort of obsessive mother character. No one really agreed with [him] but whenever he saw her, he saw her as someone who was a bit crazy. He wanted to make this story and luckily she agreed. She wanted to take on this character that was different from what she is used to playing. That is how this story and movie came about.
Can you describe the relationship between the mother and son?
JB: The son was everything to her as a man. He was not only her son, but her father figure, her husband or boyfriend. When he was writing the script, it wasn’t really something he thought of. When Hye-ja Kim mentioned it that was another take on it.
Were you drawn to the crime, murder mystery genre?
JB: He wanted to do a new take on the genre. I love murder mysteries and crime dramas. They are my favorite. One thing that is going to make a mother go crazy is if her son committed murder. That was a natural transition for that story line. There are usually four relationships between the parent and child; father/son, mother/daughter, but usually the most powerful relationship is the mother and son relationship. It is the most animalistic, instinctual relationship. He really wanted to draw from that and create a movie out of that relationship.
Can you tell us about the first day of filming and all the retakes?
JB: The first scene was with the attorney when they are meeting and she is following him. The buffet scene. That was the first scene they shot. It is a very long tracking shot. There was one small kid that was shouting. It was a chaotic scene. It wasn’t that he was trying to test her or tension between them. I explained to her it wasn’t her fault. She thought, “No, the director hates me.” She was quite nervous. She has been acting on T.V. for 40 years, but this is her third film that she has done in almost 10 years. It is understandable that she was nervous because of that.
What was the toughest day on set?
JB: Almost every day [laughs]. The hardest day for him was when the mother goes to the funeral and is slapped by the dead girl’s family members. Capturing that moment and the emotion was probably the hardest and the camera movement and getting the shot with the amount of people [was difficult]. Apparently, she was slapped 14 times in that scene. He found out after that was the first time Hye-ja Kim was ever slapped. He was assumed that she was slapped at least once in her acting career, but she had never done a slapping scene. The angle they shot it at required for them to actually hit her on the face. At the end, she had a red bruise on her cheek. The actors brought on to actually slap Hye-ja Kim were stage actors. For that reason, they brought on someone who was a little more aggressive and could do that kind of scene with her. It is difficult to slap that kind of national figure. Just imagine a young actress slapping Meryl Streep or Judi Dench. He wanted make sure the actress had the chops for it.
How much room did you give actors to improvise? Did you have a clear idea of how you wanted the characters to be played?
JB: With “Memories of Murder” and “The Host”, he worked the actor Kang-ho Song a lot. With him, he [Bong] actually did talk one-on-one of how to go about it. He also did a lot of improvisation. That was what he wanted, but for this film he went in a different route. To show the relationship between the mother and son, there had to be moments that were really tense. He took a lot of control in probing how the actors should act with each other. There were moments where he put in his input more this time around.
***Spoilers ahead: To read spoilers which are written in white, highlight the text below***
Was the son born mentally handicapped?
JB: Actually, people ask that question a lot. Even the for crew members, that read the script before, that was one of the main questions they would ask. There is the possibility of whether he was born slow or that when he was five years old his mother gave him the insecticide. For him, he wants to go with the latter. It makes her a lot more guilty and obsessive over the boy. Even though he wrote the script, he wants to lay that question out for himself too to see where that would take the storyline. He wanted to keep that mystery out there. Even at the end, when the son hands his mother the acupuncture case, he had the question of, “How much does the son know?” and the extent of his ability to understand. The question is always out there.
*End of Spoilers*
Now that your films are coming into the U.S, will you make a special edit for U.S audiences?
JB: For him, there is really only one way to edit a film and that is hard enough. To do a director’s cut or extended version would be so much harder for him. That isn’t something that anyone has asked him to do, but there is only one edit whether it is for a Korean or Western audience. To do any sequel or remakes, it isn’t something that he really wants to get into. There is a remake of The Host here for the U.S. and he is not part of it. A famous British commercial director, Fredrick Bald, is attached for directing. He did some Nike commercials. I have nothing to do with it.
Do you find it easier to get a film made if you attach genre elements to it?
JB: He likes the dark, scary sort of movies. If he sees “Sound of Music,” he actually gets uncomfortable. He prefers something more dark and suspenseful. That is why he more pulled towards [those genres]. Each genre tends to follow certain conventions and for him, he prefers to break that convention. He prefers to work in that direction. In the traditional monster movie genre, the audience has to wait almost an hour to see the figure of the creature. I really hate it. In “The Host,” in 13 or 14 minutes, in broad daylight, the creature shows himself. I enjoy that kind of thing.
Are there some aspects to the film that are uniquely Korean?
JB: The fact that the sons get away from the parents at such a late age, even in their 30’s, is really common in Korea. It is a lot later than in Western society. It is not like adults sleep with their mother in the same bed. Even to Korean audiences, that was a little shocking. Culturally, there is a close bond between a mother and a son. Even in television shows, 70% of the soap opera dramas are based on the mother/son relationship. There is also the situation where the son is ready to get married and then suddenly there is a new female figure that comes into the relationship. It is almost like a love triangle. They try to kill each other [laughs].
Have you been surprised by audience reactions?
JB: Sometimes. Last year, at the New York Film Festival, one Turkish journalist asked me, “Korean people are dancing in the touring bus? We do to!” The only two countries how dance in a bus. There are some quirky elements that are only done in Korea. Especially in “Memories of Murder” and “Mother”, there is the reenactment scene of the murder that they do. That is actually something that is standard in Korea. That is something that people are surprised by over here. There are a couple of scenes that even Korean audiences find shocking and kind of weird. He doesn’t want Western audiences to think that that is what Koreans do.
What are you working on now?
JB: A dark, sci-fi action movie. It is based on a French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige. I cannot say it. I cannot speak French. We have a walking English title, Snow Piercer. It is a train movie. The whole world is covered by ice and snow. Everybody died from the cold, but some survivors remain in a train. They fight against each other. Like, the people in economy class fight against the people in business class [laughs]. I am in the middle of the writing process.
Mother hits theaters on March 12, 2010
Check out the trailer…