Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho is known for crafting first-rate genre films like the crime thriller Memories of Murder and his record-breaking creature feature The Host, a critically acclaimed hit that's spawned an upcoming Korean sequel and an English-language remake. (Read his thoughts on sequels and remakes below.) His latest film, Mother, is, on the surface, a tale about a poor widow (Hye-ja Kim) who goes sleuthing to clear her son's name, but it quickly turns into a suspense-filled murder mystery with deep, dark ramifications. I spoke with Bong Joon-ho this weekend about psychotic mothers, his instinct for genre filmmaking, his love of the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, and his next genre project Snow Piercer. Check out our conversation after the jump.
Note: Although the director had a translator on hand for part of our interview, he speaks perfectly good English, with which he chimed in periodically.
Why did you decide to make a dark murder mystery that's really, at its core, a story about mothers and sons?
It was based off of the actress Hye-ja Kim, who's a national mother figure in Korea. I started it for her. I would see her when I turned on the television when I was younger and always knew I wanted to make a film with her, with a different take on her character. I don't know why, but I always saw her as a psychotic character. [Laughs.] I wanted to take her and get into her psyche and her craziness, because I think that's the mother psyche, what they're going through internally, and because [Hye-ja Kim] is literally the mother figure in Korea. That's why I wanted to take on this film and wrote the script.
It's certainly not the first I've heard of Asian mothers being neurotic, overbearing, and a little nuts. Culturally speaking, why do you think Asian mothers are seen in this way?
I was actually at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAMcinematek festival in New York last week, and this young Asian man wrote me a letter saying how the movie reminded him of his relationship with his mother. For the young man, it really shook him up. This doesn't really explain why, but Asian-Korean mothers vs. Western mothers in one sense have more love; maybe it's also more of possessiveness in Korean mothers. Culturally, children leave the home much later, even into their thirties, so maybe that's the reason. Here in the States, kids are separated, they sleep in a crib; in Korea, the child may sleep with their parents until the age of 4 or 5. There's also a saying in Korea: "A mother's best boyfriend is her son." There's that love relationship there, which is another element of it.
In light of all this, and considering that your film interpretation of the quintessential mother is slightly psychotic, what is your own relationship with your mother like? And what did she think of the film?
[Laughs.] She's never killed someone. She saw this movie, of course, last May; from then until now we've met often but we've never talked about this movie.
Do you feel like any part of the central relationship is autobiographical?
Not so much, but a little bit. Of course a little is inspired by my mother. She does worry about me a lot. Sometimes she's a manipulator – not only to me, but also my other family members, pulling the strings. Not always, but sometimes.
Can you explain why the Korean title of the film is "Madeo" while the English title is simply "Mother"?
The Korean title is Mother. "Madeo" is actually the Romanization of the Korean way of saying "mother." I wanted to actually call it Oma, which means ‘mother' in Korean, but there was a film a few years ago with the same title, so that's why I went with Mother. Someone pointed out that maybe I called it that because it sounds like the word ‘murder,' but that's unintentional.
Your best-known films flirt with the trappings of horror, science fiction, and now mystery. For example, Memories of Murder is a crime thriller and The Host is a monster movie. Where did your interest in genre filmmaking begin and how does it become integrated into your thought process when writing a new story?
I sometimes surprise myself, too, with my take on a genre. I have a little bit of a love/hate relationship with them. When I was growing up I did watch a lot of genre-specific films, but I went to film school and went away from that. I watched films that didn't necessarily have genre attachments, including many Asian movies at that time, and somehow it became a combination of me watching very genre-specific movies and non-genre movies. When I watched these movies when I was younger, I just truly enjoyed them. They became a part of me and absorbed into me. I didn't analyze it. That instinct is a part of me that comes out when I'm making a film.
When you conceived the story for Mother, did you think of the themes first and then apply the murder mystery elements to it, or did it unfold naturally blended in your mind?
I don't necessarily place a certain genre when I'm starting a story; it's more about the character, the situation, or the plot. The storyline just takes me in that direction. For example, and of course this is just a simplification, but in this case I thought, "Let's make a movie about a mother. But an extreme mother. What's extreme? Let's combine the mother with the situation of a murder case. Her son is wrongfully accused in a murder case – wow, that's very extreme. I can make a situation that develops." It's not intentional, but it becomes a kind of crime drama. I realize that it could come across as a thriller for some people. I don't hate that genre. I hope to make every genre – except the musical. Of course, musicals are fun and interesting, but I cannot stand, I cannot bear the moment when the music starts and they've been talking normally but all of a sudden the main character starts singing over the music. It's just unbearable. I have to run out of the theater, I'm just embarrassed for myself. I get goose bumps. [Laughs.]
Speaking of goose bumps, in Mother, there are a number of moments of heightened suspense that another director might have made more graphically violent. Why did you choose to avoid using gore or extreme violence in your film?
That's why I love Hitchcock's movies so much. Hitchcock movies are so scary and so suspenseful, but there's not much actual blood or destruction of human bodies. Seeing a hand getting chopped off, or seeing someone getting killed or maimed or mauled, is very strong imagery. But true fear is more emotional, it's more of a feeling. I want to put more emphasis on the feeling aspect. Also, a director can show and express more cinematic skill if a director himself limits the gore and blood element. It shows more technical skill, more of a directorial eye; instead of showing the blood, you're showing more of your skill. That's why I love Hitchcock's and M. Night Shyamalan's movies and I hate movies like the Saw series.
You've said you're not interested in ever making sequels or remakes. What are your feelings on the planned sequels and remakes of your films?
I have nothing to do with them. They're remaking The Host in China as well, and I hope it turns out good – and different from the original, as well. The more different from the original, the better. A remake of Mother is not decided yet, but Universal Studios bought the remake rights to The Host two or three years ago and have a producer and director attached, I heard. Also in Korea, the sequel The Host 2 is being prepared, but I don't care and I have nothing to do with it. I have many new stories in my mind and in my laptop, so I have no time for sequels.
Tell us more about your next film, Snow Piercer, based on the French sci-fi graphic novel Le Transperceneige. What's your approach to working now in the realm of science fiction, and how sci-fi can be combined with horror elements?
It's based on a French graphic novel, a dark sci-fi action movie. The whole world is covered by ice and snow. Many survivors remain in a running train, and they fight against each other. For me, sci-fi is about futuristic and fantasy worlds, and it can really show what humanity is, what life is. Basically, what is human? That's what I like about it. Not all science fiction can be horror, but the two can be melded, as in Alien, and be well done.