I love extreme situations. You can learn a lot about a person by pushing them to the limit.
The Official Selection for the 70th Cannes Film Festival was unveiled this morning at a press conference in Paris. The list of In Competition titles boasts some heavy hitters, including Sofia Coppola, François Ozon, Todd Haynes, Michael Haneke and Noah Baumbach, not to mention Bong Joon-ho and his much-talked-about fantasy Okja. By the looks of it, it’s gonna be a doozy:
There’s no denying that the South Korean filmmaker continues to produce remarkably original—and endlessly entertaining—work. The 47-year-old earned cult status among cinephiles with films like Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother and Snowpiercer. He really hasn’t put a foot wrong.
We went digging into the Anthem archives to revisit our past interview with Bong. Imagine our surprise: it was nowhere to be found. Our best guess is that it slipped through the cracks during our design overhaul years ago—what else is down there?—but now it’s here again for the taking.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview was conducted on December 14, 2009 in Los Angeles.]
When did you first realize that you wanted to make movies?
There was no specific event or anything. I was always a huge film buff. I was a child of the ’70s, so I didn’t have access to DVDs or VHS growing up. I didn’t go to the movies that often either. In many ways, TV was my cinema. I would open up the TV schedule and see what movies were playing each week. Although I was mostly watching films on TV, I could get through around ten a week. By the time I got to middle school, I was certain that I wanted to become a film director.
Were your parents supportive of that?
I majored in sociology in college. I knew that my parents would disapprove of me studying film. I looked at famous Korean directors at the time like Lee Jang-ho and Bae Chang-ho, and found that none of these directors had studied film either. I realized that you didn’t have to go to film school to become a great director. But I was an active member in film circles around school. After graduating, I attended the Korean Academy of Cinema, a government-funded school, for one year.
Korean society puts so much emphasis on wealth and success. I think it’s heightened above and beyond what’s considered “normal” in America. Korean parents can get super rigid.
In my case, I was quite lucky because my father had studied art. And I didn’t tell my parents what I really wanted to do until I enrolled at the Korean Academy of Cinema after getting a degree in something else entirely. Luckily, they weren’t too opposed to the idea of me wanting to make films by that time. There were of course things like, “Wouldn’t you rather do this instead?” [Laughs] Filmmaking is unstable and a lot of hard work goes into it. They also asked me, “How about shooting episodic TV dramas? Isn’t it the same thing? Isn’t it more stable with a steady income?” There were minor squabbles like that, but nothing too big. Nowadays, there are so many kids that want to pursue acting or careers in entertainment. I think parents have eased up a lot since then.
Were you interested in doing anything else?
I toyed with the idea of becoming a cartoonist or an animator, but that was short-lived. I was never really interested in pursuing anything outside of entertainment.
You and Park Chan-wook are probably the most well-known contemporary filmmakers to international audiences. Why do you think your films have such far-reaching appeal?
When I’m shooting a film, I never think, “I wonder how this will be received by international audiences,” or anything like that. I think the characters, the storylines, and the situations I present are very Korean. Memories of Murder was about a Korean serial killer. The Host takes place near and around the Han River with scenarios that Korean families commonly face. This is the same case with Mother. I’ve never made a film hoping that I would receive international acclaim. I’m very focused on making genre films, first and foremost, because those are the kind of films I grew up with. Although Memories of Murder and Mother are very Korean at the core, they fit into the crime/thriller genre. The Host fits into the monster genre. I think it could be that in many ways: The stories are very Korean, but the genres make the films easier to digest. A lot of critics have described Mother as being very “Hitchcockian.” I guess this film is relatable in that way as well.
Did you find that audiences received Mother rather differently at film festivals around the world such as Toronto, Cannes, San Sebastián, New York, and so on?
For the essential moments in the film, the reactions have been pretty much the same. This is a movie about a mother and son. It’s about a mother and son’s intense relationship—that will never change. As for the big differences, I think a lot of it comes down to the actors. When we showed the film at San Sebastián and New York, they were quite impressed by Won Bin’s performance. In Korea and Japan, his performance wasn’t so well-received. [Laughs] He’s a well-known TV star in Asia, which I think has a bearing on how they perceive his performance. For audiences who were unaware of his celebrity outside of Korea and Japan, they didn’t have preconceived notions or prejudices against him. When there’s no context, they can judge his talent more objectively.
For the record, I loved Won Bin’s performance. What made you want to cast him?
I actually didn’t see him as a strong candidate at first. I thought his celebrity in Korea might work against his character in the film: the prejudice that fans might have going in. But this one producer—who had no involvement in Mother—told me to meet with Won Bin. The producer told me that, in real life, he’s very different from what you see on TV: “He’s from the countryside. He grew up deep in the mountains until high school. To put it simply, he’s a country boy.” [Laughs] “And from top to bottom, he’s really fun.” So while I was working on the screenplay, I had the opportunity to meet Won Bin in a very casual setting. We met at a restaurant, and sure enough, the guy who walked in was very similar to the character I had in mind for the son. Talking to him in person confirmed that even more. He knew a lot about the street culture in which this film takes place. I gained a lot of confidence in him after that. This isn’t the most important thing, but the feeling behind Won Bin’s eyes were very similar to that of Kim Hye-ja as well. There was one instance where I photographed the two of them together and I thought their eyes gave off a similar mood. They seemed like a real mother and son. The quote in the film, “Do-joon’s eyes are like a work of art. They’re like deer’s eyes,” was actually written after I cast Won Bin in the part.
A lot of Koreans refer to Kim Hye-ja as their “national mother” for having played motherly figures on TV dramas for many decades. Her role in Mother is quite different, though: it’s hard-edged and, really, kind of perverse. Did you set out to confound expectations?
That’s the only reason this film came about in the first place. My thought was, “Let’s take Korea’s ‘national mother’ and make a really weird movie.” [Laughs] I imagined that she must be sick of it, too, playing the same role over and over again. I thought that, if I brought her this story, she would probably enjoy it. Casting Kim Hye-ja in this part already set into motion the fact that this film is unmistakably about a mother because it’s her archetype. Korean dramas featuring warm and caring mothers have been done to death. I was interested in taking the mother role to a much darker place, and take it as far as I could take it. I believe that, under extreme circumstances, mothers will do anything for their children. It’s very touching, but it can also be quite frightening. [Laughs]
How is your relationship with your own mother?
We have a normal, peaceful relationship. [Laughs]
I’m dying to know her thoughts on Mother. What was her impression?
She came to the premiere in Korea. I was nervous about her seeing it—more nervous than showing her my other films. I didn’t tell her what the film was about, so I’m sure she was surprised by what she saw. I think it might have been a lot darker and more disturbing than what she was expecting. She didn’t say much after watching it and I didn’t feel comfortable pressing her with questions. We avoided each other and acted as though nothing had happened. [Laughs] But I do want to ask her what her impressions were soon. It’s not like I modeled Kim Hye-ja’s character after my own mother. There are subtleties that I might have pulled from my mother, but nothing significant.
Does your father enjoy your films?
My father really enjoyed Memories of Murder, but we never discussed that film in much detail. I think he liked The Host, too. He really hated Barking Dogs Never Bite. [Laughs] My father is a professor and he didn’t like the protagonist, a college professor, being portrayed in such a way.
We’ve been painting a pretty grim picture of Mother, but it has its share of funny moments.
There are comical moments in all of my films, but they’re never calculated. Just as I would cross the street or breathe, the humor comes out naturally. Without that, I don’t think I could live my life, let alone make a movie. I never thought, “In this scene, the character has to laugh at least once” or “There has to be a joke every ten minutes.” These moments develop organically. In real life, too. I don’t like it when people take everything too seriously. You know those endlessly serious people?
You write all of your own screenplays. What does a normal day of writing look like for you?
I like to write in public places like coffee shops. I went to isolated places when I wrote Barking Dogs Never Bite and Memories of Murder, but they turned out to be horrible experiences. I just came out of them feeling more and more crazy. I like the sound of people around me when I write. I sit in the corner of a coffee shop, write for about two hours, and then walk around outside before settling into a new location. The places I normally go to have accessible power outlets and they aren’t overcrowded. There are several quiet coffee shops in Seoul that are on my usual route. I just keep moving from one place to another. That’s the way I wrote The Host and Mother.
Are you currently working on a new screenplay?
My new project was announced two or three years ago. It’s called Snowpiercer—that’s the English working title. It’s based on a French sci-fi graphic novel. It’s hard for me to pronounce the French title [Le Transperceneige]. It’s about the end of the world. A group of survivors are on a moving train and they fight one another over class issues. It’s a dark sci-fi action movie.
What drew you to this graphic novel?
The overall idea was compelling to me. It’s, again, about people who are put in extreme situations. They fight in the confined space of a running train, which is in many ways also very spacious. I love extreme situations. You can learn a lot about a person by pushing them to the limit.