At Salon.com, the headline for Andrew O'Hehir review calls the film “a brilliant Hitchcock mystery, made in Korea,” while in his Village Voice review J. Hoberman says “Mother is deftly plotted, applying Hitchcockian suspense with a Hitchcockian sense of fair play. It would hardly be surprising if Hollywood attempted a remake—although it will be a rare studio movie with the nerve to re-create Mother's convulsive final reel …”
Starring one of Korea's most revered actresses, KIM Hye-ja, Mother chronicles the struggles of the title character, a small-town single parent who does whatever it takes – and I mean whatever it takes – to clear the name of her dimwitted son (former teen idol WON Bin) accused of the brutal murder of a local schoolgirl.
Director Bong has kindly agreed to answer a few questions (via e-mail) for Alt Film Guide. The questions were sent to him in English; his answers were in Korean, and were later translated into English. See below.
In the Los Angeles area, Mother is currently playing at The Landmark in West Los Angeles, the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, and Laemmle's Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.
Photos: Magnolia Pictures
First of all, what was the inspiration for Mother's basic storyline?
I can't say there was a specific film or novel, but I wondered how I could naturally place the mother in the most extreme situation. I was highly inspired by the two faces of the actress KIM Hye-ja. On the one hand, she has the gentle image of the nation's mother (NOTE: she is lovingly called The Korean mother), and on the other, the hidden dimension of madness that was unseen before; the two cannot be easily teased apart.
Movies about devoted mothers tend to veer toward the saccharine. Mother doesn't. Did you make a conscious effort to steer clear of melodrama? Or was Mother supposed to be a darker, more serious effort from the get-go?
From the very beginning, I was most interested in portraying the mother as a dark and destructive figure—not the typical gentle maternal representation—so there was no real temptation to veer toward the saccharine. Simultaneously, although it is dark, I wanted people to think, “I would do that,” or “My mother would do that.” I needed the universality to be there, despite the extremity of the situations.
What was it like to work with KIM Hye-ja, a national acting legend in Korea?
Delightful. Though the film was realized with her in mind, I was able to bring out a new side to her, which was even more intriguing. To take an actress that is so well-known, and discover a way to cast her in a new light was incredibly rewarding. KIM Hye-ja worked as if she were a beginner, with an open mind and vitality, so the experience was a positive one for us both.
How difficult was it to transform teen idol WON Bin into the film's dim-witted protagonist? And how did Won and Kim work together on the set?
WON Bin was previously recognized as a pretty boy and movie idol in Korea and Japan, but now that he is over the age of thirty, he has already sloughed off those characteristics. I therefore believe he was already ready for the role's maturity. The audience may have been surprised by this new portrayal, but from the standpoint of director and actor, it was preconceived from the start. Even off the set, KIM Hye-ja and WON Bin interacted like mother and son. The two have very similar eyes—when they stand side by side, they look like a real mother and son.
Comparing something like The Host to Mother is a little difficult – except for the presence of strong family bonds in both films. Would you say your feature films share some sort of element in common?
On a superficial level, I believe I have always worked with different genres. However, I tried to take the rules of the genre, so to speak, and break them—something the four features have in common. All of my films do not strictly follow the rubric of a genre film. Maybe a commonality is that the main characters are often losers and vulnerable?
Both Mother and Memories of Murder are brooding crime dramas. Did any other filmmaker – or film(s) – influence your approach to the crime genre?
Ever since I was in middle school, I enjoyed crime novels and films. William Irish's [a.k.a. Cornell Woolrich] and Raymond Chandler's novels, Claude Chabrol's '70s crime films; and of course, Hitchcock, the source of never-ending inspiration to many directors—these are all influences. And the reality of Korea I live in are all added to this.