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Jogging Memories of Murder

Magnolia Pictures

Coming of age as a Yonsei University sociology major during South Korea's turbulent struggle for democracy surely contributed to director Bong Joon-ho's unique ability to transform domestic issues and contradictions into allegory. As a young cinephile, Mr. Bong was exposed to the auteurs of the region through the university cine club. He directed three short films before his feature-length debut and box-office flop, "Barking Dogs Never Bite" in 2000. But "Memories of Murder" (2003) was critically and commercially successful at home and abroad, putting his name alongside other local filmmaking wunderkinds, most notably Park Chan-wook. His next release, "The Host" (2005), an allegory of the U.S. occupation and the changing Korean family in the guise of a retro monster film, remains the top-grossing South Korean film of all time. Subsequent short film "Shaking Tokyo" in "Tokyo!" was easily the best installment in the overall uneven omnibus production featuring co-contributors Leos Carax and Michel Gondry. Finally, with recent masterwork "Mother," Mr. Bong proves that — unlike Mr. Park's latest over-stylized disappointments — his films only become richer and more intricate in their form and content. Here, Mr. Bong addresses the casting choices, cinematic influences and characters in "Mother."

Q. "The Host" and "Memories of Murder" address broader social issues. And while the nature of gender roles, class and justice in Korea are present in "Mother," they are background against the film's character study. Did you decide to move away from directly addressing sociopolitical issues or did the centrality of the film's character study emerge as things developed?

A. Because this is the next film that followed "The Host," I think there was some kind of opposite reaction that worked within me in the production of this film. The Korean title of "The Host" is literally translated as "monster," and I think "mother" in the pure sense of the word is already a very big antonym of that word "monster." So "Mother" represents the opposite end of the spectrum from the film "The Host." Yet, this mother also becomes a monster herself. Also, in "The Host" there is no mother, only two generations of fathers; and on the other hand in "Mother," we don't have the presence of any father at all: [Kim] Hye-ja's husband, Do-joon’s father, is not present, so that's another opposition to note between the two films.

Q.: Certain parts of the film — the score, the Oedipal resonances between the mother and son — are really reminiscent of Hitchcock's best thrillers. It's not the first time a film by you has left such an impression. Was this conscious?

A. It wasn't that I was intentionally trying to do an homage or prepared to emulate any kind of styles from Hitchcock; but of course, like many filmmakers, I liked and enjoyed his films; and I grew up watching his films when I was younger and reading many books about him. Many filmmakers have Hitchcock's ways in their cinematic repertoire; and I think I'm one of them as well. Because it's something that's come up in many interviews of mine — that there are relationships to Hitchcock — I've looked back on the film shoots and arrangement of cameras, so on, and there are things I notice. But it was not intentional. I do have a recent memory of, for some reason, wanting to watch "Psycho" again during the production of "Mother." There's obviously that strange relationship, like you said, between the mother and son.

Q. How did you know that Ms. Kim was capable of portraying this type of emotional fierceness and intensity from her work on TV dramas?

A. It wasn't a sudden realization or that it popped into my mind recently. But when I watched her on the television when I was younger, I always thought there was a strange hidden hysteria or dark feeling in her. When I became a director, I was able to do this project and use those initial impressions.

Q. With the character of Do-joon and his thuggish friend Jin-tae, you seem to continue a trend of male characters in your films who are often either mentally slow, socially awkward or irrationally violent. Any thoughts on why this pairing shows up in many of your films?

A. It's a familiar yet strange type of pairing. We kind of wonder why someone like Jin-tae would want to hang around with someone like Do-joon, who's somewhat more slower in that kind of way. But in rural places like the countryside, it's something that you actually see often. I think it ultimately comes down to the fact that this should be looked at through Do-joon's perspective. Jin-tae is someone that is able do the things that Do-joon can't do, and is able to have the things that he can't have. For example, Jin-tae can have sex with the women that Do-joon wants to. And there's also the perspective of Hye-ja regarding Jin-tae, someone that she despised and tells Do-joon to stay away from. Yet when the situation comes down to it, Hye-ja asks for Jin-tae's help in her matter. Although there is an exchange of money; and it's a hiring almost. But still, there's that duality of equally despising and also having to work and deal with him.


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