Mother, the new film by Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder and The Host) isn’t your typical murder mystery. Upon viewing the trailer, one might think that it’s simply a tale of a mother (played by Kim Hye-ja) attempting to clear the name of her son (Won Bin), who has been framed for murder. In attempting to discover the identity of the real murderer, though, the mother finds herself a part of the previously unknown dark side of her small Korean town.
As grisly as the subject matter seems, the movie does not rely on excessive displays of violence to shock the audience. It’s a testament to the director’s skill that the audience cares about more than just unraveling the mystery of who committed the murder; they care about the mother herself and how the events of the town impact her state of mind. It is Bong Joon-ho’s masterful character development, coupled with the understated and chilling acting of Kim Hye-ja, that makes Mother so much better than a straightforward whodunit. Bong Joon-ho took part in a Q&A at The Korea Society in New York City, where he talked about Mother, his previous films and the state of Korean cinema in 2010. The conversation was moderated by Michael Atkinson, professor of film at Long Island University, and opened up to questions from the audience. What follows is an excerpt from both conversations.
Q: There has been a “Korean New Wave” starting in the late ’90s and going into the new millennium, with many new directors receiving international recognition. Do you perceive it that way and where did it come from?
Bong Joon-ho (BJ): In the early ’90s and 2000s, there was a phenomenon called “Korean New Wave,” as you mention, but it wasn’t a conscious collective effort. It just happened that certain filmmakers were making good output during that time, and I wasn’t focused on that—none of us were. We were just trying to make good films. It just happened that we were making films in that time period. In 1992, the militaristic regime ended [in Korea] and democracy was setting in, there was more freedom from censorship and freedom of filmmaking that let new directors try new things. There was a lot of fresh blood coming into the system of the filmmaking industry, and directors like Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk and Im Sang-soo are among that crowd. Even the older generation of fillmmakers wanted to work with these younger filmmakers as well, so that was another factor.
Q: Do you think there is a distinctive flavor to the films in the last 10 years compared to older Korean films or films in general?
BJ: Although I’m not sure of distinctive differences, newer filmmakers like Kim Ji-woon and Park Chan-wook are what I would call ‘film maniacs.’ I include myself in this—we were really into films, and we really love watching films. We are the generation that frequented video stores, renting and watching movies. Someone like Im Kwon-taek, who is much older than us, has a rich tradition of filmmaking on set, being on set and having made films for many years before us. I think that’s the difference: We are not from the film-on-set generation, whereas the older generation was already making films for a long time. I think Hong Sang-soo had studied in the U.S., and a lot of newer generation filmmakers have studied abroad, outside of Korea.
Q: Starting with your first film as a director, Barking Dogs Never Bite, you used complex characters with flaws. Why do you empathize with characters like that?
BJ: I’m not a person who can be set about one person’s attributes, and I’m not inclined towards one person or another, but I think I always have a duality of accepting a person—hating the person, but also having sympathy for him or her as well. I’m not prone to judge or make a judgment about one side of the person. Even the detectives in Memories of Murder, they are what you would call “bad cops”—they hit their witnesses and suspects, and they are violent. Those are obviously qualities that we shouldn’t accept readily, but you can’t really hate them for it either. I think there is always a duality of a victim within the instigator.
Q: Your follow-up to Barking Dogs, Memories of Murder, was based on a real case in the 1980s. What drew you to make a film about it?
BJ: I combined a lot of actual things that happened, as well as my imagination, and for this film there was a stage play that was created about the incident. The first reason that I conceived ideas for this film was that I had an interest in crime films from a very young age—even to the point where I consider my first film Barking Dogs to be a crime film as well, in the context of serial dog killing. Unfortunately, it bombed at the box office, and next I wanted to do a real crime film. I never wanted to do it in the style of a Hollywood film, but rather a uniquely Korean crime thriller. What came to me was the Hwa-sung serial murder case in the 1980s. Upon writing the script for Memories of Murder, I had a change of heart from wanting to create a crime/thriller genre movie to wanting to make it more about the victims, because I became shocked and angry while looking through research material from the case—and I was engrossed in the research and the case so much that I almost thought that I could catch the killer. It is still an unsolved mystery and because of statuary limits it cannot be reopened. It was very emotional and responsive filmmaking.
While we were making the film, the staff and I had a lot of talks about the subject matter and we came upon the idea that when we put the film out, the actual killer may one day be watching the movie. So in the last scene of the movie, you see Song Kang-ho, the main detective, looking straight onto the camera out at the audience. It was about having the eyes of the failed detective looking into the eyes of the killer. I wanted to include that moment in the film.
Q: Do you see yourself as a political moviemaker?
BJ: They give us a day off to vote during elections [in Korea], and I’m the type that uses it to go to the movies. I wouldn’t call myself a political filmmaker, but The Host, for example, was a monster film and definitely a genre film, which lends itself to be a little more obnoxious and more direct in poking fun at society.
Q: Do you leave gaps of knowledge to accentuate the impact of what happens in the story, or is it your specific style of storytelling?
BJ: It’s not that I have any philosophical aversion to revealing the whole of the story, but as a storyteller—since I write the script for all my films—I tend to express characters that have miscommunication and confusion amongst them and that misunderstand each other. Mother is the most obvious case, where the mother who had devoted herself entirely to raising her son ends up finding out that she does not know her son at all. It’s a very big gap and misunderstanding between those two characters. I think that kind of miscommunication between characters creates a dynamic story, and makes me want to explore it more.
Q: Is your newest film, Mother, also based on a true story?
BJ: There is no true story behind this, or any base to its context. It’s something I’ve come up with.
Q: It’s the opposite of Memories of Murder, as the mysteries in Mother are all ultimately resolved. Did you have a change of heart?
BJ: Memories of Murder is obviously an unsolved case, and it ends with the fact that you can’t know the killer at the end. It’s a mystery film that ends with a mystery. In Mother’s case, you find out who the killer is and you have an answer, but you also still don’t know why it happened or what was going through the minds of the characters. There’s still a certain mystery to it. Rather than to say there was a change in my filmmaking approach, Memories of Murder was concerned with conveying the time period of the ’80s, the society and the greater scheme of things in the era, while Mother is focused on a singular character. I find that it’s hard to trust or know a single person truthfully or completely, as I don’t know my own self completely either. In Mother, we encounter the son through the point of view of the mother, and she finds that she doesn’t completely understand her son on whom she was so focused. That was the element I was focused on exploring.
Transcript courtesy of The Korea Society. For more information, visit http://www.koreasociety.org.