When Bong Joon-ho was in middle school, he accompanied his mother and a bus full of middle-aged women as they traveled the midlands of South Korea, passing the time by dancing in the aisles. Decades later, the memory would reverberate with the director of “The Host,” who found himself in the middle of a field asking lead actress Kim Hye-ja to dance for the hypnotic opening shot of his latest film “Mother.” (She refused until Bong and his assistant director would also start shaking their hips.)
It was the least Bong could do for his star, whose career of playing warm, attentive mothers has led to the iconic status of being considered a matriarch to all of Korea. But if Bong’s last film was a monster movie about a family who comes together in a time of crisis, his gutwrenching new one is about the monstrosities that people are capable of when a family is torn apart, as Kim joins a long line of movie moms who go to incredible lengths for their children. In this case that involves playing against her long-held screen persona as a woman hellbent on proving her son’s innocence in a murder case. Although Bong admitted he still doesn’t know what his own mother thinks of the film — she saw it around the time of its premiere at Cannes — he shared with me his thoughts on the eccentricities of Korean mothers, his high school love of Ed McBain novels and whether he considers himself to be a political filmmaker, with some, but not much help from a translator.
I’ve heard you say that Korean mothers are particularly peculiar — what sets them apart?
My own mother is the type to worry a lot. Sometimes she would worry about things that hadn’t even happened yet. Korean mothers have that quality of worrying a lot. A unique thing about Korean society is that children rely on their mothers much more than they do in Western society, where they leave home quite early. In Korea, children still live with their parents up to their 30s sometimes. There’s also kind of a subtle sexual tension between the mother and the son because even when the son gets married and brings in a new wife, there becomes a kind of weird love triangle between the mother and the son and the son’s wife that’s dramatic and intense.
Why did you want to tell this story now?
I’ve been thinking about it since 2004, but I wanted to make a film about a mother because “The Host” was about the relationship between a father and his children. As a director, I want to explore relationships between human beings — I thought, what’s the relationship that’s the stickiest, the most complex? At the same time, it’s very animalistic and instinctual and very strong — that’s the relationship between a mother and a son. We’re all sons of mothers.
So did the story idea for “Mother” evolve as you were making “The Host”?
Around 2004, I was writing the script of “The Host.” At the same time, I had the synopsis of “Mother” in my head, so maybe unconsciously, I compared those two stories. For example, in the story of “The Host,” there is a father and grandfather, but I purposefully didn’t want to create any mother-child relationship. There is no mother in those two generations. It makes the family more dysfunctional and more… stupid [laughs] — because I in my point of view, the mother is always the most realistic and strongest presence of the family.
When you make a large-scale film like “The Host,” does it change the way you approach a smaller-scale film?
Frankly, I love smaller movies. The reason I made “The Host” is I was fascinated with that story. I had no intention of making big movies, spectacular movies. I was fascinated by the characters and the story, but it cost quite a lot of money to realize the monsters and the digital effects scenes. But I don’t like big budget movies. So in this case with “Mother,” I wanted to dig a very deep hole.