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An Interview With South Korea’s Box Office Champ Director Bong Joon-ho
The South Korean director whose movie about a mutant river monster became the country’s biggest box office hit has a new film on what might be an even more terrifying subject — an maniacally obsessive mother.
Bong Joon-ho sat down last week for an interview with Reuters about his new movie called “Mother”that debuted last month at the Cannes International Film Festival and has quickly become one of South Korea’s biggest hits of the year.
The movie is about a mother who goes to extremes to protect her emotionally and mentally unstable son after he is charged with murder. It follows Bong’s movie “The Host,” which was the first South Korean film to make more than $100 million at the local box office.
The following are excerpts from the interview in Korean and translated by Kim Junghyun
Reuters: How would you describe your movie “Mother”?
Bong: It is a movie that brings this issue of motherhood to the extremes.
This movie is about a mother, but not just a mother. It’s a mother whose son is facing a murder charge. International audiences might find it easier to approach this movie at first as a thriller.
But I believe South Koreans and foreigners, although they might start at different points, would ultimately reach the same point by the end of the movie – two different doors into the movie, and one exit.
Reuters: What did you think about casting actress Kim Hye-ja, who has played the role of a mother so many times in South Korean movies?
Bong: I was worried and excited at the same time. On one hand I was worried she might not like the role because it was too different from what she has been doing for decades. On the other hand, I had this belief that she must be bored of her stereotypical image, which could be both an honour and a burden.
I spoke to her about the story in 2005 before working on a screenplay. The story I told her back then has the same ending as the movie. So she knew what would come, and she liked it. She said she would want to do it, and that she liked it because it was just so different from what she had done. I was so happy.
Reuters: So you had her in mind in the first place. What would have happened if she rejected the offer?
Bong: The whole project then would have been scrapped, which was why I was nervous. The shocking ending was pretty much set by 2004, so story-wise it took almost five years to be fleshed out. Like wine grapes ripening.
I’ve wanted to do a movie with her since, well, always. And I always thought she needed to appear much more on screen.
Bong: I wanted the story tragic. My previous movies all had a sense of comic relief, but I wanted this to have a different tone. I wanted it to be a movie that was dashing toward a tragic end – a tragedy that is simple but strong, shocking, and sad. It’s no wonder that the ending can be disturbing.
But at the same time, the movie does not leave you as a mere onlooker but instead makes you ask questions to yourself, and what you would have done in her place. Many mothers out there may want to go out for a drink after seeing this movie.
Reuters: What do you think about the talk of the sexual nuances in this mother-son relationship and the tricky relation among the characters?
Bong: Yes, this is a sex movie. If you follow the course of a mother in this movie, the movie in a way is about sex. There’s a bloody scene by the end of the movie – I wanted that murder scene to feel like a sex scene.
Reuters: Your films always seem to have had social misfits as protagonists. Why?
Bong: I am innately drawn much more to those people, whom I believe have much more compelling stories to tell and drama in their lives. Plus, I’m rarely around people with money and power – they live on a different planet.
Reuters: Do you like Cannes?
Bong: As a director, or just a film fan who wants to enjoy the festival, Cannes is the worst place to be. But it must be a paradise for distributors and importers.
I mean, Cannes for a director is really a hellish place. Imagine all those critics and savvy audiences members ready to jump at your movie and tear it apart – your movie which quite often would be shown for the first time in the world. Those hundreds of audiences members – the likes from the “New York Times” and “Variety” – get to see my movie for the very first time, with a sashimi knife at hand to brandish.
But then at the same time, it’s the hottest place to unveil my work, I must admit. It’s hard to resist Cannes.
(Reuters pictures by Eric Gaillard and You Sung-ho)