Mama Said Knock You Out: An Interview with ‘Mother’ Director Bong Joon Ho

Bong Joon-ho
CJ Entertainment
16 May 2009 (Cannes)

In a world where tepid films filled with ignorant goodwill (such as The Blind Side) are being celebrated with nominations for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and the nominees for Best Actress remain widely xenophobic, cinephiles must actively seek out interesting international films that star women, particularly real, interesting women over the age of 40, to get a true picture of what the climate is like for women in contemporary cinema. While there are major strides and power plays being made by English-language actresses like Sandra Bullock, Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep, the best roles for mature women are still being most actively realized outside of the conventional American-centric systems of film making.

Recently, to highlight the opportunities for actresses whose native tongue is other than English, there has been a spate of interesting, intelligent star vehicles for mature female performers that don’t necessarily bring in major box office receipts, but manage to dazzle with their originality, nonetheless. Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (Argentina), Sebastien Silva’s The Maid (Chile), Martin Provost’s Seraphine (France) and Cyrus Nowrasteh’s The Stoning of Soraya M. (Iran), have all purposefully centered around the dramatic action created by unique leading ladies.

These films become important because they challenge convention and offer dynamic starring roles to the women acting in them, but also a chance for audiences to get a taste of what it is like for women in off-the-beaten path, unusual cinematic locales. It’s no surprise that these films, all featuring protagonists well over the age of 40, have all gone on to great international critical acclaim, as each highlights a singularly female experience that had not yet been portrayed for the screen.

Surfing on the crest of a new global wave of feminism generated by the splash of a celebrated new generation of auteurs is Bong Joon-ho, who made 2007’s The Host. The director of one of Korea’s most financially successful films of all time shines a spotlight on a singular older woman with his daring detective story Mother, and proves that Korea is fast becoming a hot spot for interesting female film performances.

Part noir thriller, part classic, melodramatic soap opera, the film’s narrative is propelled by the actions of “Mother”, played brilliantly by Kim Hye-ja, a staple of Korean acting who happens to be in her mid-60s. “I cannot think of a better role model for an actor,” said actor Won Bin, who plays her son. “Every day on the set was so joyful, full of excitement and adventure.”“Mother” must become a detective in order to clear her naïve son Do-joon, who has been charged with the murder of a local young woman.

The premise is simple, yet the dramatic consequences are fraught with an intricate emotional complexity that few actresses of Kim Hye-ja’s age group playing archetypal mothers, English speaking or not, are actually allowed to play. “I had been away from the film industry in recent years because, let’s be honest, there weren’t good new roles written for someone like me,” said Kim.”What they were sending me was the same old stuff. But Mother… was quite different.”

While directors beyond America’s borders are crafting stories that defy preconceptions about maternal love and challenging audiences’ perceptions about the role of older women in genre films, the Academy is handing out Oscars to people like Bullock and women over 40 who play mothers that are still relegated to the sidelines of the real action. Most of the time they are given very little to do other than represent the ultimate nurturer, the saint, and sweetly embody the impossible ideals of 20th century motherhood.

To Bong’s credit,
Mother takes a firm step in a bold new direction, where a mom can be flawed, honest, funny, scary, traditional and innovative. These expertly-drawn contradictions sketched by the director conspire to make “Mother” one of the most amazingly well-rounded female characters in recent memory, especially when coupled with Kim Hye-ja’s ferociously committed performance that physically embodies all of these characteristics.

“I asked Bong to push me to the extreme,” said his leading lady. “He was only happy to oblige! On the first shoot we did eighteen takes, some kind of a record for me, and by the seventeenth take I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I am ruining this movie!’ And it was like that for five months.”

Not Your Typical ‘Mother’

While New York endured a late February snow emergency, I spoke with the charming Bong Joon-ho about the misconceptions a spectator might have about mothers and sex, obsession and spraying blood in a grande dame‘s face – something that probably won’t be happening to Judi Dench any time soon.

The opening scene is captivating, with Kim Hye-ja performing a kind of an emotive, interpretive dance in a graciously-swaying field of tall green grass. That shot took my breath away. What did you hope to achieve with the scene and why open the film in this way?

That opening scene was not initially in the script that I was working with. On the other hand, the end scene, where she’s dancing on the bus was, from the very get go. The idea popped in my head to kind of have two mirroring where there is dancing at both the beginning and the end. And that happened at the very end of shooting.

Of course, the two dance scenes in the beginning and the end, they mean very different things. In the beginning, there is this woman standing in broad daylight, suddenly dancing, with this crazy look on her face. What I was trying to do with the opening scene was establish that. Is this woman crazy? Is she going to become crazy during the film? I wanted to announce that to the audience from the very get go.

That’s a great segue to my next question actually, since the tone of Mother is so unique and surprising. There are elements of feverish drama, really funny physical comedy, and then there is also a bit of graphic violence, of course. How do you find a balance for these disparate elements? What are the challenges in this?

Those different kind of aspects that you mention don’t actually feel too difficult for me to deal with. You could even say that it was more graphic in The Host than in this movie, because that movie had elements of black comedy, an art film, a horror movie and even an action movie at certain points.

These sort of “disparate” elements come naturally to me and they don’t feel too foreign when piecing them together. I don’t feel like I am mixing or measuring ingredients for a cocktail in a sense either because those elements are what I am used to

It’s a refreshing change for US audiences to see a non-white, mature woman as the focus of a film like Mother and propelling most of the film’s action. How did you come to cast your leading lady and what were some of the choices she made that most surprised you?

I think the subject matter of this film – dealing with an older woman who becomes a detective – because she’s an older woman, I don’t think that’s something many film audiences would have accepted readily. Because Kim Hye-ja is such a grand dame of Korean media and television, she’s an iconic national actor in Korea, because she’s such a well respected name, there wasn’t any difficulty getting it made.

Specifically, the movie was not a feat of casting. The actress was the starting point of this movie. I made this movie for her and because I wanted to work with her in a film. The story was specific to her and if she didn’t like the script I would have canceled the project and it wouldn’t have been made. This is a role that could not be played by someone else.

It surprised me and a lot of the staff members and crew, of course, that she walked about and had an energy about her that was like a younger girl. It made us realize that this was really a pro actor. She enjoyed the really dark taste of the film, the dark sensibility, and the really grim aspects. [Laughing] Even to the point that she would say ‘should you spray a little more blood in my face?’ That surprised all of us on the set. She was really a great force to work with on the set.

This is not your typical “mother” role, in fact, I think it is quite rare to see such a multifaceted, nuanced female character as this because mothers in film are so often stereotyped as nurturers or as martyrs (which “Mother” is to a degree). We’re also reminded with this character that mothers can also make bad choices or be deadly as needed. What stereotypes about motherhood did you hope to confront in creating this character?

There are obviously very typical portrayals and ideas about motherhood that we have like that undying love form that you always return to. But I think that my goal with this film was to kind of cut up the history and to show the greediness of “Mother”.

There’s the very beginning scene where she is working the blade and she almost cuts her finger off because she’s so engrossed in looking at her son. The question is whether that is love or some kind of deeper obsession? And from the very beginning it is a different kind of “mother” that we see here.

There is also a very important subplot: mothers and sex are normally two different topics that we don’t like to put together in one thought. Even though all mothers have sex to eventually have children, we find it improbable to link those two things together. In the film she encounters the sex between the young girl and the man, and eventually that kind of sex is also a springboard for exploring the sex case that happens with the entire town, that is involved with this young girl that’s been killed. So, there’s that hidden element of sex that’s behind the subplot of this movie.

One of my favorite details in the script was Mother’s use of traditional medicine – acupuncture. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the use of traditional medicine in Korea and why you chose to write the character with this specific attribute?

I wasn’t particularly interested in the traditional medicine or that kind of school of thought, specifically, but I was more interested in the act of using acupuncture, the needle, the visual that comes with that. The act of putting in a needle in acupuncture is, I think, a very real and very scary and off-putting thing. It’s possible that it is going to hurt you and that it is going to leave a scar.

It has a dual relationship in the film and I think it provides an interesting parallel to the relationship between the mother and the son. There is a mother who really loves her son almost to the point of obsession, but that love and obsession can also be a hindrance or scar to the son. There is the possibility that she could hurt him, as well.


After a successful navigation of the international film festival circuit, playing to raves at Cannes, Toronto, AFI and everywhere in between, Mother will enjoy a limited release in the US beginning 12 March 2010.