It’s a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles when Bong Joon-ho walks into the conference room at the mPRm offices. He’s dressed simply, wearing a black button down that’s been aggressively wrinkled from too much traveling and too little wardrobe. His hair is wild and wooly and he helps himself to coffee before sitting down with Cindy – the translator – for our interview.
We don’t start immediately and I pass a few moments making small talk about how long he’s staying in California and what he thinks of the weather. He replies in deliberate, but near-perfect English that he’s just come in from the east coast where it’s really gloomy and that he’ll be leaving soon to go back to Seoul, Korea. Then I turn on my recorder and we get to the issue at hand – Bong Joon-ho’s latest film Mother.
In this Korean film, a single-mother struggles with raising her beautiful, yet mentally slow adult son, Do-Joon. Both of their lives become much more complicated when a local girl is murdered and Do-Joon becomes the number one suspect. With all of the evidence stacked against him and with expensive defense lawyers looking for a plea bargain that includes years of jail time, Do-Joon’s only hope is his mother who must face dark realities to prove her son’s innocence. Along the way she demonstrates the unshakable bond all mothers have with their children.
As the screenwriter that created the story, it’s interesting to know why Bong Joon-ho chose this subject matter. “It was for the actress Kim Hye-ja – the Mother character. It was for her actually,” he says. “I really wanted to work with her. She started acting before I was born, but I remember seeing her on TV as this mother figure. Whenever I turned on the TV she was always there and she played…a great mother.” On creating the character, Joon-ho says, “I wanted to take a different approach with her…sort of give her a crazy, obsessive mother character. No one really agreed with me, but whenever I saw her I saw someone that was a bit crazy, like the character she played on TV. I wanted to make this story and luckily [Kim Hye-ja] wanted to take on this character that was different from what she’s used to being.” He adds that this story is a different look at the mother figure.
This new take explains why the mother-child relationship is told against the backdrop of a murder-mystery. Joon-ho readily admits that the two concepts don’t typically go together, but he wanted a new approach to the genre and put the mother figure in a perilous situation. He also adds, “I always love murder-mystery and crime-drama – my favorites.”
Kim Hye-ja, who has over 50 years of acting experience in Korean film and television, plays the Mother in the film. She confessed that the very first scene they shot took 18 takes and she feared that she was ruining the movie. Joon-ho laughs at the thought. The scene in question was technically difficult and required a lot of camera movement. “There’s a very long tracking shot. Track around and then pan and track. The scene was just very chaotic. It wasn’t that I was pestered or that there was any tension between us. [The scene] was just a complicated shot. I explained to [Hye-ja] ‘it’s not your fault.’ A small extra key, a mistake, you know, camerawork. I explained many things, but she [was convinced] ‘no, the director hates me.’”
“She was quite nervous,” he adds. “She’s been acting on TV for over 40 years, but this is only her third film.” Despite her decades of experience, Mother represents the very first time Kim Hye-ja was slapped. Joon-ho relates that, unfortunately, the slap had to be real considering the shot. Since Hye-ja commands an impressive amount of gravitas in Korea there weren’t many actresses who were willing to slap her, so Joon-ho cast a theater actress with experience in physical acting.
Regarding his directing style, Bong Joon-ho confesses that in his previous films Memories of Murder and The Host he allowed room for actor improvisation. This time around, his direction is heavier handed in particular scenes, simply because there was something specific he was trying to get from the actors. That’s not to say that the actors didn’t have any input. “In the case of Kim Hye-ja, her understanding from just reading the script itself was very intuitive. Obviously, she has a lot of ability, so some of the comments she said gave me more of an understanding of the [character] too – her take on it.” One of Hye-ja’s insights is how much the son means to the mother. Do-Joon is not only her child, but also fills the role as her husband and father. “I wanted to have an almost [romantic] relationship between the mother and son and the fact that [Hye-ja] saw that in the bigger picture was very interesting.”
Mother is very Korean and some American audiences may not understand why certain things happen in the film. For example, it’s not uncommon for children to live with their parents until closer to their 30’s whereas Americans are happy to oust their offspring as soon as possible. While Bong Joon-ho understands these cultural differences, he’s not interested in cutting together a Western version of his films. “There’s really only one way to edit a film and, for me, that’s hard enough. To do a director’s cut or an extended version would be so much harder for me. [A Western version] isn’t something that anyone’s asked me to do, but really there’s just an edit for me, whether it’s for Korean audiences or Western.” He notes that The Host is being remade for American audiences without his involvement.
Fortunately, the parent-child relationship is universal and every audience will be able to appreciate the themes in Mother. Look for the film in theaters on March 12.
Check back at Working Author for my full review.