The Korean director Bong Joon-ho, the man responsible for 2006’s offbeat monster movie hit The Host (now supposedly being remade by Hollywood), has returned with another strange genre hybrid. His latest, Mother, is a thriller about a mother who becomes obsessed with proving her somewhat slow, grown-up son’s innocence after he’s accused of a grisly crime. Like The Host, it’s a film that manages to takes its story in strange, surreal directions even while satisfying on a purely genre level. As such, it also recalls Bong’s 2003 film Memories of Murder, which first put him on the map of the international festival circuit. Mother, however, is a leap forward for the filmmaker, in its expansive ability to juggle thriller, drama, and comedy, while offering a remarkably sensitive character study; the titular performance, by the veteran Korean actress Kim Hye-ja, runs through a stunning range of emotions before the film’s impossibly haunting finale. Bong sat down with us during last year’s New York Film Festival to discuss his latest masterpiece, his fondness for genre, and what he thinks about an American Host remake.
Even though Mother goes in some very strange directions, it still manages to work as a genre piece. How do you strike that balance?
I guess you can say that I love genre movies, but I hate genre conventions. It comes from instinct, mostly. When I was a kid, I was always watching genre movies on TV. So when I’m writing and shooting, it’s just something that happens naturally in my mind: I want to express the excitement of genre while avoiding clichés, or conventions. Like a bartender making a cocktail, they instinctively know how much of what to put in a drink. That’s kind of the way I am.
Do you watch other genre films when you’re preparing a film like this?
Not specifically when I’m writing a script. But when I’m filming, I do go back to other films. During the shooting of Mother, I took a look at Hitchcock’s Psycho, for example. I don’t know why, exactly, but maybe there’s a strange relationship between the two movies.
There’s a very odd atmosphere in the film. At first, I wondered if maybe we were watching a period piece, because the mother and her son seem to live in a primitive way. And yet everyone else has cell phones and other things in the film — in fact, so much of the story hinges on technology.
You’re exactly right. I tried to have a timelessness to these characters, to make it hard to tell what time period they’re from. That’s the prime difference between Memories of Murder and Mother. In Memories, I wanted to really give a sense of the eighties and of the Korea of that day. So I focused a lot on getting those kinds of details right. But in Mother I was trying to get rid of any kind of locality, any sense of place and time. I wanted to purely focus on the relationship of the characters. So we used a German handmade classical lens, which I think was also used on Munich and The Lives of Others. It’s a very classical, heavy cinemascope lens. We wanted the feel to be something like seventies American movies.
The film explores how the mother and son go from a state of being totally bound together to a state of distrust, first on her part and then on his, until they’re finally separated. It almost becomes a metaphor for growing up.
That’d be a very dark kind of growing up! To be honest, I didn’t think of the film that way, but that’s a new reading that I like. But I was definitely looking at the relationship of control between the two — and who controls who at any given point. I was interested in that role reversal. So, it turns out to be a film about the mother losing control over her son. I guess that ties in with your idea about growing up.
Let’s talk about the film’s remarkable final shot, in which the mother, on a bus with other elderly people, starts to dance, as the sun sets behind her. I’ve read elsewhere that this was planned before the movie.
It was a very crucial image for me. The scene of her dancing in the bus while the bus is moving is not an uncommon scene for us Koreans when older people go on trips. They have fun and they dance. For Americans, it may seem surreal. And when I was a kid, and I saw this kind of thing for the first time, I could not understand their feelings — it looked weird to me. Now that I’m an adult, I think it comes in part from a sense of loss. I told myself very early on that if I ever made a movie about a mother, there would have to be this scene, of a mother dancing on a bus. I was working on the story for this film even before The Host was out, and I was specifically thinking about Kim Hye-ja for the part. I only had a small synopsis, which was basically that scene. It was very difficult scene to shoot, because there were no visual effects or anything of the sort. My cameraman and I were in one car trying to shoot into the bus, and trying to get the sunlight coming through the windows of the bus. Very difficult!
So you had Kim Hye-ja in mind before you even had a script?
This movie happened because of the actress. I specifically came up with it while thinking about what kind of film I could put her in as an actress. She’s very well known in Korea as a mother figure in TV dramas. For many years, she’s been the ideal depiction of a Korean mother. I wanted to present new insights on what it means to be a mother, and in the process destroy that meaning. She’s a great actress, but the style of her acting here is different because of the character, who has a certain amount of insanity in her. I was born in 1969; she’s been acting since before I was born. But on this film she was very open to new ideas, very open to trying new things. She said specifically to me, “I want you to push me to the edge of the cliff. I want you to push me as hard as you can.” She went at this project like she was a first time actress — she was so eager to try out new things. She definitely has a bit of insanity in her.
So what about this rumor of an American remake of The Host? Can it be any good?
It’s not a rumor. It’s supposedly happening. They already have a director and a screenwriter for it. I’ve heard that it’s in progress. I have nothing to do with it, but still, I’m happy, as the creator of the original version. If it’s a very good film, I’ll be happy. And if it’s trash, I’ll still be very happy. [Laughs.]