The Korean director Bong Joon-ho, responsible for last year's The Host, is back with a gritty examination of maternal instinct.
It was always going to be difficult to follow the phenomenal international success of the eco-thriller The Host, but the Korean director Bong Joon-ho tried not to let fame change him. In fact, his new film, Mother, which premièred at Cannes, was based on a script that he had been working on before he ever came up with the idea of his hit monster movie. It's a story about one of life's great universal themes, a mother's love for her children.
It's also a murder thriller that Bong has decided to tell from the perspective of the suspected murderer's mother, played with a beguiling otherworldliness by Kim Hye-ja. She is forced to question her unconditional love for her offbeat twentysomething son when he faces a murder charge. The dark comedy follows her attempts to prove his innocence. The film is on a much smaller scale to The Host, but Bong says this was just a happy coincidence rather than an effort to show that he can make character-driven movies as well as action films. He says: "I've been planning on doing Mother ever since 2004, when I decided that I really wanted to work with Kim Hye-ja, so it was done in a completely independent way and was in no way a reaction to the success of The Host. I had a two page synopsis from that time and the final film was based on this original synopsis. Although, I must admit, it was actually during the production of The Host that I started to pad out the script for Mother. However, it is true to say that personally I don't really like big-scale movies, so it was always my intention to do a small film."
Bong, who is in the process of writing The Host 2, first came to international attention when his sophomore film Memories of Murder played the festival circuit in 2004. Death and madness are recurring themes that appear in his movies and for years he wanted to throw mother-child relationships into this mix. He even admits that his own mother can sometimes be a little bit too maternal. He explains: "My mother? she is always worried about me, even though I'm about to turn 40. She is always telling me what to do: 'Don't do this, or don't do that.' I wanted to make a movie that started with guilt and then brings us to an exploding madness, showing that love and madness are simply two sides of the same coin."
Despite all his investigations into the subject, he admits the figure of the mother still leaves him totally bewildered: "I wanted to explore and question the mother figure, but I didn't reach a point where I can say that I made a great discovery and can preach what exactly the mother figure is. In any case, I didn't want to do that. I would just like people to have memories of their own mother when they come to see the movie and have questions about the figure and to also ask themselves to what extent a mother can support her son. It seems like mothers are capable of anything."
It's hard to tell who is more crazy in Bong's new film, the mother, or her unstable son. These are more offbeat characters to add to those that Bong has brought to the screen since making his directorial debut in 2000, Barking Dogs Never Bite, a comedy revolving around the unfortunate deaths of numerous canines. Bong says: "There are a lot of characters in all my movies that are mad, and sometimes I do find myself questioning why I like these people. In my scenarios, when I'm writing, I'm attracted to these people because they have a very dramatic side. I remember being seduced by the photographs of Diane Arbus when I first saw them. I think that there is a special sadness that comes from those people."
He doesn't believe that his feelings are driven by compassion: "I would say it's more mixed feelings than compassion. In my surroundings I had the opportunity to see these people a lot, and in general I would say it's weak people who have no power that I like to depict." Park Chan-wook produced Mother, and Bong works closely with the Oldboy director, even sharing the same crew. He understands that the seemingly close-knit community of Korean directors can give the impression that there is one cinematic movement in the country.
Bong, though, is keen to play up the differences. "Yes, seen from abroad I understand it's easy to think of us as a little community," he says. "But actually we are very different from each other. At times I think we go out of our way not to be similar to each other. But it's also true to say that we are really close and we proudly show each other DVDs that we have bought and meet with each other a lot.
"However, I think our styles of cinema are different. Park's depiction of violence for example has a lot of blood and has some graphic beauty in it, whereas hard gore is not my style and I'm not depicting violence in a graphic way, but it's always a subtext that is under the surface. I know that sometimes this can seem weird, but it's because I'm weird."