Interview: The Host & Mother Writer/Director Bong Joon-ho
by Alex Billington
March 15, 2010
A couple of months ago, I had the incredibly rare and unique opportunity of interviewing Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, of Memories of Murder and The Host previously, who is one of my favorite directors. I saw his new film Mother (watch the trailer) in Cannes last year and loved it. Mother just hit limited US theaters this past weekend, so this interview is focused on that film. It's a fascinating interview that covers plenty of ground and if you're a fan of Joon-ho as well, this is a must read. We talk about everything from violence in Korean culture to remakes of his films to his own filmmaking inspirations and why he loves 1970's cinema.
Bong Joon-ho spoke through a translator most of the time, but he occasionally tried to speak in English as well, which is why you may notice split answers. Sometimes Joon-ho tries to answer the question in English, then will switch back to Korean. I left it with that separation in the transcript below to keep the integrity of the interview intact. That said, he does delve into some fascinating topics anyway, and I hope you enjoy the interview. Don't forget to see Mother as soon as you get the chance - it's currently playing in theaters now!
I first saw Mother in Cannes last year, so I've got to say I'm a huge fan. I love this film and I love The Host as well. I want to start with where the idea for Mother came from and how you developed it?
Translator: I'm going to explain in two parts. The first [reason] is because of the actress - Kim Hye-ja - she was where I got the inspiration from and she was the starting point for the story. She's a very iconic mother as a national people's mother in Korea, but I wanted to flip that around, that image of her, and show this kind of mad, crazy side.
And the second part is I wanted to explore the relationship between a mother and her son. So out of the four parental relationships, father and son, father and daughter, mother and son, mother and daughter, I felt that the mother and son relationship is the most powerful. It's instinctual in an animalistic way. Especially, you carry the son in the womb for a long time and the fact that they're of a different sex, when the baby comes out, there's kind of a weird tension between a mother and a son and especially in Korea, that relationship between the way a mother takes care of a son…
So there is that one male and female relationship between the mom and son and especially in Korean culture when the son gets married. So his wife and the mom, they have kind of a strange love triangle, a weird tension between the mom and the son and the son's wife. [About] 70 to 80% of the Korean dramas that you see on Korean television, those are kind of based on that tension, that drama that happens between those three people.
I'd love to touch on a couple of things you said. First, how did you even find Kim Hye-ja and get her to star in the film? Did you convince her to come back, or did she feel this was her time to return to cinema, or how did that work?
Translator: She's been acting for 40 years, but mostly it's been in television and she's only done actually two features. But his previous film, Memories of Murder, she was a fan of that film, so she really liked that. In terms of approaching her, when he did, she said, 'Oh, you're the director of Memories of Murder.' So she was very open to the idea of being-- In 2004, he first pitched the idea of the story and since then, they've developed it more. But the fact that the mother [spoiler removed]. The whole end part has remained since then and she really liked that idea of a mother turning into that kind of character. She wanted to try something where it's a little different from the past roles that she's done where she played more of like a warm, kind mother.
Bong Joon-ho: If she refused that story, I would've had to give up on the project because…
Translator: When he was planning this movie, the movie would've just crumbled apart if she wasn't in the role. Basically, this whole movie was built around her character.
It sounds like she had a lot of development in crafting the film. Was she working on the script with you? How involved was she? Because it sounds like she had a lot to do with making sure it ended the way it did.
Translator: She wasn't actually involved in any of the writing process, but while he was developing the script, every few months he would meet with her, or every month or so, and then just kind of observe her, her expressions, the way she speaks, and just seeing her relationship because she is a mother of a son as well. Just watching her and being able to communicate with her through that process helped him a lot. While he was meeting with her, he would take a lot of pictures. He likes to do this with his actors a lot. So he had like thousands of pictures of her, her face, while they communicated and even if you look at the film, it's a film of close-ups. So you see a lot of close-ups of her. And just studying those pictures and seeing her different expressions, that kind of help nurture the script.
One of the other things I've noticed with your films is that the violence is almost brutal and out there and uncensored in a way, which in American culture that isn't popular due to our rating system. I'm wondering whether that's something that comes from Korean culture or whether that's something that you strive for in particular, directing your films.
Translator: So Korean culture in general is very accustomed to violence because it's only been 50 years ago since there was a dictatorial regime in Korea. So that violence kind of seeped into the culture. Even like just watching violence or even being violent with other people, people hitting each other, they'll just take it in a more joking, laughing manner. So violence is something that's more familiar and accustomed in the Korean culture. When he was in high school actually, the teachers were allowed to hit the kids.
Bong Joon-ho: Many times, everyday.
Translator: If they didn't study or whatever, they just hit them. But now, in today's culture that kind of changed in society. If a teacher ever hit a kid, all the kids would take out their phones and take pictures and would put it in on the Internet and create a scandal. Just seeing how that society changed is interesting if you compare Memories of Murder, the way the detectives kind of approach the case and the way that the detectives approach the case in Mother, which is made 20 years later. You see an interesting--
Bong Joon-ho: In Memories of Murder, the detective beats the suspect. But in Mother, they beat the apple, not the suspect, but apple [inside joke from the film]. It's a very modest expression, but--
Translator: Today in reality, they never hit the suspect.
Have you ever been offered to come to Hollywood and direct films here?
Bong Joon-ho: Actually, after The Host, some agency approached me and now I have an agent here. They always send me a script every month.
Is there a reason why you've decided to stay in Korea, directing films there though instead of taking on a project here?
Translator: I'm open to the possibility of shooting a movie in Hollywood, but, in terms of time-wise, it hasn't really happened because everything has kind of been going according to schedule. After The Host, he was going to shoot Mother and after Mother, he wants to shoot Snow Piercer, his next film. So in terms of that, that's kind of been set, but he is open to the possibility. But he's always had 100% final cut and creative control over his films. He's not sure if that's going to be possible in Hollywood. So there is a bit of a dilemma in being able to have that and still make a film in Hollywood.
As long as he can have 100% creative control, then he's willing to work anywhere - Japan, France. In Japan, he made Shaking Tokyo, the omnibus film, and he had 100% control over that. It was a very fun, enjoyable experience to make that. As long as he is able to creatively control the whole film, then he's willing to try different pieces.
I ask because I've seen so many directors from Korea and all over Asia come to America to work in Hollywood and sometimes it doesn't work out, as you said. And I love seeing you continue to work in Korea and still see all these great films coming from Korea. That's the only reason I ask. What do you like doing more: writing the script, shooting the film, or editing it together? Which do you prefer?
Bong Joon-ho: I always write the script by myself. Screenwriting is most painful, so lonely and I hate it, but I still don't have some kind of screenwriting partner, long-term screenwriting partner, but I really hope to find somebody, some good combination. So still now I'm writing my own script for the next project.
Translator: The whole process of making a film is pretty difficult. It can be painful at times, but the part that I enjoy the most is the mixing. So when I see a scene that I shot and put a layer of music over it, I feel very pleasantness just watching that, seeing it come together with the music.
Bong Joon-ho: If the score is good. [Laughs]
How much post-production work do you do? Is there any CGI work you do to make it look better in the end?
Bong Joon-ho: For Mother?
Yea, for Mother in particular, or do you try to do everything in camera while you're shooting?
Translator: So the Korean film industry in general is very digitally oriented. They really like the whole digital process. Digital intermediate-- Mother was DI as well. There are certain things that you can't fully see and so those digital effects are in the movie, but they're almost seamless. You can't really tell. One such detail is the scene where the interrogator comes and kicks the apple out of his mouth. That's not a real apple. That's a CGI apple, but just things like that, just little realistic details.
Has the Red camera come to Korea or do you shoot with a different camera?
Bong Joon-ho: HD, yeah. Quite many feature films use HD, including the Red camera in South Korea now. But in my case, I prefer Philips much, much [more].
Translator: He wants to be that one guy who until the very end is going to shoot film no matter what, even though the whole industry changes.
Oh yea, I think it will be around forever! What films have been the most inspirational for you in your life, or what are your favorite films?
Bong Joon-ho: For Mother or just in general?
Just in general.
Bong Joon-ho: I love the Japanese director Shohei Imamura. His masterpiece in 1979 called, the English title was Vengeance is Mine. It's a little story of one Japanese serial killer based on a true story. It was very, very inspirational for me to make Memories of Murder because in that movie we could not see the murderer in the movie -- in my movie Memories of Murder -- some empty space. But that movie, Vengeance is Mine is totally focused on the actual real serial killer, murderer. The main character is not detective, but a serial killer. So it was very helpful for me, very inspirational for me.
And I love all the-- Do you know director Kiyoshi Kurosawa? He made many masterpieces of Japanese horror, Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Shohei Imamura. And also I love 1960s and '70s big master of Korean cinema, Kim Kyung Hyun. Two years ago, Martin Scorsese presented his movie in Cannes Classic section, maybe also in Lincoln Center in New York. They did some retrospective of his movies, Kim Kyung Hyun. He is my mentor, and I love also many 1970s American movies, that period. Even studio movies, parts of the movies from that period have a kind of cinematique, beauty and dignity.
How do you find your style with your films? Is there anything you do in particular to come up with a look or a style, specifically with Mother? One of my favorite shots is whenever she runs out of her store and the shot follows along side of her… I'm just curious where all of that style comes from?
Translator: I find it a little difficult to try to explain myself. I'm not always aware of it as well. This is something that happens kind of instinctually, just the way I decide to shoot things. It's very important for me to find the right location for the scene to take place and then once I know the location and I'm very aware of it, in general I can be very aware of a certain setting, then I know how to kind of shoot that scene.
Bong Joon-ho: So during the pre-production, I always spend quite a lot of time on location scouting, much more than other film's pre-production in Korea.
It looks beautiful and I love the way all of your films look. Have you had any involvement in the remake of The Host here in the US? Have they talked to you at all?
Bong Joon-ho: Universal Studios bought the remake rights to The Host, but I don't care. I have nothing to do with it. I don't want to.
Translator: So actually, all the rights to that film in terms of perhaps sequels and other things, I gave all the rights to the production company that produced that film just as more of a gratitude to the producers who produced the film. So they can do whatever they want with it, but once in a while, the producer will approach me and say, 'Are you interested in doing sequels' or whatever, but he's not interested.
Bong Joon-ho: There is an American remake now and there is also some Chinese versions of The Host now preparing. In Korea, there is The Host 2 preparing. They are preparing the sequel. But I don't care at all because I have so many other new stories. I don't write any kind of sequel or remake.
Well, if it worked out, would you do a sequel to any one of your films?
Bong Joon-ho: Yeah.
Translator: I'm the type that I don't want to repeat myself. I keep wanting to try new things in films. So just say if they remade the movie in America and they take it to a new direction, try new innovations, take the story to a new level and turned out with a really great movie, I'd be very happy as original creator of the film. But even if it went the complete opposite direction and the movie turned out to be just utter crap, I'd be okay with that because it shows that hey, my original movie is still better.
I guess I've heard some filmmakers say they like to go back because they don't want anyone else to ruin what they've created, whether it be in a sequel or a remake.
Bong Joon-ho: If they ruin the remake, maybe they will [go] look for my original movie on DVD. And that makes me happy! [Laughs]
Exactly! I also just wanted to ask about Snow Piercer as well and how soon that is going to go into development. Is it ready to start? Is the script written?
Bong Joon-ho: Now I'm writing script and I'm always drawing something from my visual ideas in my notes almost every day, sometimes in the airplane. So maybe I will spend all next year for screenwriting and pre-production. Maybe it's quite difficult to start shooting in the next two years. Anyway, I hope to finish that movie in 2011.
I'm looking forward to it just because I'm a big sci-fi fan.
Bong Joon-ho: Me too.
Thank you to Bong Joon-ho and Magnolia Pictures for this opportunity. Be sure to see Bong Joon-ho's Mother, as it's currently playing in limited theaters right now and it's a great film.