Sunday, August 15, 2010

"In Korea, middle-aged women often dance inside express buses" - An interview with Bong Joon-ho


Is Bong Joon-ho the most exciting director of his generation? Few other filmmakers can match his sense of craftsmanship, his flair for storytelling and his extraordinary range, and his new film Mother is his finest work yet. Last year, I named Bong as one of the best filmmakers of the decade, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity recently to email some questions to the director about Mother and his remarkable body of work. Here are the answers he sent back.

How did it feel to go back to a smaller, more intimate type of storytelling after a big, effects-heavy blockbuster like The Host?

The Host was a movie like a showroom of satire. It contained a wide range of satire on both USA and Korean society. As the reaction to this, in Mother I would like to focus more on points such as the presence of the mother itself, the relationship between mother and son. However, I already had a storyline for Mother before I completed the scenario of The Host. I have prepared for this movie from 2004, so it depended on what I want to say rather than the scale of the movie. It was a personal line-up planned by my desire of expression.

Kim Hye-ja's performance in the film is incredible. How did she react when you first approached her with the script?

I told Kim Hye-ja the storyline of Mother in 2004. I worried a lot because this movie could not be continued if she declined my offer. I made this story and scenario while thinking of Kim Hye-ja, so there was no substitute. Fortunately, she liked the story and said she would like to take the role, saying this role was different from other mothers she had performed, and I remember I breathed a sigh of relief when she said that. When I showed her the completed scenario in 2008, she mentioned the fogbound atmosphere and that she liked this mysterious and dreamy atmosphere. Thankfully, she said that something more was hidden in the character of mother and she would do more than what was being portrayed in the scenario.

Is the role of the mother a particularly important one in Korean society? In The Host, the mother was notably absent from the family, so is this film a reaction to that?

Not just in Korean society, a mother’s role is paramount throughout the world. Yet we Koreans are obsessed with motivations to move the society into a better place and the society expects mothers to go beyond, especially with an issue that is related to their children, and it causes them to have more burdens. In the movie The Host, the story is based on one family, but the mother was never involved in the story. The mother's absence was definitely intentional because the absence brought problems to the family and made the family unstable. Not just Song Kang-ho's wife, but also Byoun Hie-bong's wife ran away; hence, the family lost mothers for two consecutive generations to make the family even more miserable. It was planned to see and realise the importance of a woman's role in the family. I think a mother is the most influential existence in the family, and because of the mother's absence, this family was a mess. Even Hyun-seo, the girl in the hideout of the Host, was the pre-image of a mother. That's why I ended up making my next film based on a mother.

The mother's love for her son is so strong it seems to border on the edge of insanity. Is that kind of obsessive love something you wanted to explore with this film?

Yes, right. When love crosses a certain line it turns to obsession or madness and it also can be a sin. Especially when it comes to the relationship between mother and son, it is closer to the strong basic instinct. Basically, it starts as love, but it can be changed to something animal rather than humanlike – a growling tiger with its claws out to save her cub. It could be madness and brutality from the viewpoint of a human, and I would like to show something like that in this movie.

How did you come up with the idea for the dancing that opens and closes the film?

That ending sequence, in which she dances inside a running express bus, could be a kind of Korean reality. In Korea, middle-aged women often dance inside express buses. I have witnessed it quite often. I don't remember when, but I've long been determined to make dancing in the express bus as a core image when making a film about a mother. Korean mothers dancing in the bus contains mixed emotion and complex feelings. I wonder whether this could be translated into English, but anyway, I've had the image of the ending sequence from the beginning. I remember that I told Kim Hye-ja about the dance even when I was explaining to her the simple storyline.

The dance at the opening sequence is something that came to my mind while I was finishing the script – how about beginning it with a dance? But the site in which the dance takes place has some sense of horror. It may seem like a plain, beautiful field at first, but as we watch the film for two hours, we realize that it's the place which the mother arrives at after committing something terrible.

I’m always amazed by the way your films successfully mix scenes of drama and violence with comedy. Is it hard to achieve this balance between conflicting emotions?

Actually, that kind of mix is my instinct. I have never arranged scenes intentionally, but it just mixes like that when it is complete. I think that it would be more natural, because emotions cannot be defined as just one. I insist that this way with mixed feelings is more realistic.

The script for Mother is very tightly structured and it contains a number of twists and surprises. What is your writing process and how long does it take you to develop your screenplays?

It’s quite an inclusive question, so it’s hard to answer briefly. For example, Memories of Murder took 6 months of research, which was quite a long time, and I wrote the script for 6 months. The Host took 6 months to a year to write. In the case of Mother, I collaborated with a writer, Ms. Park Eun-kyo. While I was filming The Host, Ms. Park did primary works according to the storyline which I wrote, and then I finalised the script. It took about 5 months to finish the script by myself. Writing a scenario is such a complicated process, there are lots of things that make me agonise in loneliness. Now I’m alone working on the adaptation of Transperceneige, which is torturing me at times. When I’m stuck on it, I sometimes feel like killing everyone besides me and then killing myself!

What is your directing style like? Do you storyboard prior to shooting, and how do you work with actors on set?

I draw my storyboards by myself. I try to settle the site and space in advance, so that I can have some understandings or feelings about that space when working on the storyboard. Space, as well as character, is important to me, and without the space, I cannot work on the storyboard. I precisely design the position and movement of camera and the frames. For actors I tend to be more generous. They're human beings, unlike cameras or lighting, so it's a matter between a human and a human. When they show me unexpected stuff, I am most satisfied. Of course, I sometimes direct or ask them to act in certain ways, but the most delightful moments are the moments when actors show me a surprise with their own instinct as actors. I prefer those improvisations, and I try to make various attempts; changing the lines or acting according to the mood of the scene.

Your last three films have begun in very familiar genres - the serial killer movie, the monster movie, the murder mystery - before expanding beyond the boundaries of those genres. Do you enjoy working in these genres because they allow you to subvert the audience’s expectations?

I have complex feelings about genre. I love it and I hate it at the same time. I have the urge to make audiences thrill with excitement of the genre, while I also try to betray and destroy the expectations of the genre. However, to be frank, I’m not really conscious of the genre itself every time I work. My favourite genre lies inside myself, and as I follow my favourite stories, characters and images, it consequently ends up in a certain genre. So at times even I have to try to guess which genre it’ll be after production. Frankly speaking, that’s the reality.

One of the key themes in your work is the effect of violence on families and communities. Why does this theme interest you?

I’m a little faint-hearted, and I’m afraid of violence. When I experience or witness violence its after-effects last quite long. Especially in Korea, in which I spent my adolescence, the 1970s-80s were days of military dictatorship. In those days, violence was such an ordinary thing. Not only those investigators who tortured suspects, but also at schools, violence was a prevalent thing. I got spanked a lot in school, since teachers' violence against students was nothing so strange at that time. We even had military training at school, so violence was a daily routine. There are still vestiges of it; that’s why we can’t help being interested in the relationship between Korea and violence – this instilled violence.

Mother seems to be heavily influenced by Hitchcock. Is he one of your major filmmaking inspirations? What other directors have influenced you?

When limiting it to Mother, I wasn’t particularly conscious of Hitchcock. I think things like the construction of shots are fundamentally different. I have seen Hitchcock’s Psycho a few times during pre-production. I like seeing my favourite films over a few times, but especially in case of Psycho, there’s the mother who becomes dead and stuffed. Before her death, this mother’s relationship with her son Anthony Perkins seemed quite similar with the relationship with the mother and son in Mother. When commenting on my general filmography, it is likely that I might have been influenced by my favourite directors - Claude Chabrol, who is called a ‘French Hitchcock’, Henri-Georges Clouzot, who influenced Hitchcock’s films. I like those masters of crime films. Japanese director Shôhei Imamura’s crime film Vengeance is Mine is also one of my faves. It is a film about a serial killer which excellently digs up the human nature. I also like Korean director Kim Ki-young who directed the original version of The Housemaid, which was recently remade.

Along with Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk, you were part of an exciting ‘new wave’ in Korean cinema. How do you feel about the current health of the Korean film industry? Are there young filmmakers following in your footsteps who we should look out for in the next few years?

I’m also inside the Korean film industry, so I don’t really have any ideas on how to objectively brief on it. I’m just a tree forming a forest named Korean cinema, and since I lay inside it, it’s hard to view the forest in general. Instead, I can tell you tons of young and talented helmers who deserve attention. There are these genius brother directors named Kim Gok and Kim Sun, also known as Gok Sun-Gok Sa, who are currently preparing for a feature film. Director Lee Yong-ju who directed the impressive horror film Possessed, and director Yang Ik-Joon who directed Breathless, which has gotten spotlights from film festivals overseas. Director Jo Sung-hee, who was awarded at the Cannes Cine Foundation with his short film Don’t Step Out of the House, has also filmed his first digital feature film debut, and I’m anticipating it.

There is both a sequel and a Hollywood remake of The Host in the works. How do you feel about those projects? Do you feel your films are universal and can be adapted to any environment?

Actually, I’ve heard that Universal has bought this film, so perhaps the producer who bought this project might know better than me. I’ve tried to make a ‘Korean film,’ more focused on a Korean sense of emotion. However, some universal aspects of this film might have intrigued them to purchase and remake this film, and I hope it will be an exciting and original remake version. The sequel is also being produced by the same production company – Chungeorahm Film. As thanks for producing The Host, I’ve donated the rights for the sequel to the production company. Personally, I’m much more inclined towards new stories and new films, so I don’t have any interest in sequels or remakes. Anyway, as the original author, I hope whether they are sequels or remakes they all could do well eventually.

What is the current status of Transperceneige? Are there any other projects that you are particularly keen to make in the future?

I’m doing this interview while working on my scenario. I guess an adaptation could be done during August. The project that I want to do...of course, there are tons of them, but there’s one particular project which I’m planning to work on after finishing Transperceneige. It’ll be such a unique one, I think.