LKL reports from the screening of Mother at the Bong Joon-ho retrospective at the British Film Institute on 14 November, with Q&A chaired by Tony Rayns.
In a world obsessed with celebrity, youth and beauty, only a director of the stature of Bong Joon-ho could have got away with it. The big name star, Won Bin, is given a secondary role as a “retard” (but don’t call him that). Plagued with memory loss, he is a no-hoper in life, and has no hope with the fairer sex. Instead, the role of the handsome hunk is given to a relatively unknown actor. But even he is only a secondary character. The lead character is … an ajumma.
Bong Joon-ho enjoys the perversity of it all. “Actually, Jin Gu isn’t all that handsome in real life. I had to work hard with lighting and camera angles to make him look sexy”. On the back of the film, Jin Gu has now achieved a measure of fame. Bong also enjoyed the perversity of giving Won Bin, better known for his roles in big action movies such as Taegugki, the role of the mentally damaged son. “He accepted immediately. He likes doing risky things”, said Bong. “And he’s naturally a bit awkward,” Bong added, rather unkindly, implying that the role wasn’t too much of a stretch.
The ajumma herself, Kim Hye-ja, is not just any ajumma. Although relatively unknown on the big screen, she has been in TV dramas for decades, and featured regularly on TV during Bong’s childhood. The film was created for her, and the script written around her.
Western actresses constantly complain about the lack of strong roles for middle aged and older women in film, and here is Korea, until recently not really known for enlightened attitudes towards women, leading the way with a film that revolves around a woman who is over 50.
Her face fills the screen, often surprisingly emotionless but concealing an inner resolution and determination underneath. At other times she is a tiny dot in the landscape, emphasising her vulnerability. But do not be taken in. This ajumma is fearsome and fearless.
Always resourceful, always finding some cash from somewhere, always on the edge of the law for practicing Chinese medicine without a licence, this ajumma has an indomitable spirit. Above all what powers her is her love for her son, and this is the central theme of the film: how this love ends up turning her into a monster – she will stop at nothing to protect her son. “Not many mothers wouldn’t become monsters” in such scenarios, suggested Bong. And the opening scene with the Mother dancing in the fields, to music which is audible only to her, is a pre-echo of the coming madness.
The landscapes for the film were chosen with great care. The film was made in 26 different locations. “My scouts scoured the entire country”, said Bong. “We were afraid that all the petrol costs would completely blow the budget”. The task was to find landscapes which were “feminine”, in keeping with the focus of the film. The landscapes had to have curves, waves, and no hard edges.
Bong’s film-making is not only meticulous over use of location. “I’m a complete control freak” he confessed. He storyboards all scenes in advance (one of his childhood ambitions was to be a manhwa artist), and then he is always torn when he is on location if any changes have to be made. “But I hate writing the scripts”, he confided.
Bong’s early diet of film was Friday night B-movies on the US Forces TV network, and then, at his university film club, videos of Hou Hsiao Hsien and Tarkovsky were standard fayre. When Bong was not watching pirated videos he was making Molotov cocktails: for Bong was in education at the time of the student protests against Chun Doo-hwan’s dictatorship. “I never participated in the riots”, said Bong, nervously looking towards his wife in the front row of the audience. “I was good at making Molotov cocktails, but I never threw one.”
In 1994, Bong got the opportunity to attend the Korean Academy of Film Art, which was a great privilege because it was free and it had first-rate equipment. “But I wish I’d burned all the prints of my early work” he admitted. He served his apprenticeship, as assistant writer and director, simultaneously on two very contrasting films: Phantom the Submarine – which paid the bills – and Motel Cactus, an arthouse movie which took two years to film and made no money at all. Bong learned a lot from the director (Park Ki-yong) and cinematographer (Chris Doyle). Apart from learning the trade, Bong’s job on the set of Motel Cactus was to keep a count of how much Doyle was drinking.
Back to Mother. In The Host, the family had no mother. Part of the point of the Host is that the family is chaotic: it’s generally the mother who provides the stability. In Mother, there is no father in the family. Bong wanted to make the film about the mother’s relationship with her son, and a father (Byeon Hee-bong, who appeared as the Dog-Eater in Barking Dogs and the father in The Host, would have been the natural candidate) would have got in the way. For those who are interested in trivia, when the Mother tears a photograph in two and gives half of it to the photography studio to touch up the image of her son, the other half of the photo had the father in it – played by one of the production team.
The film starts with dancing and ends with dancing. Bong knew that he had to end the film with a coachload of ajummas dancing down the highway to disco ppongtchak music, and so had to have Mother go on the coach trip to move on from the traumas of what had gone before. The audience didn’t get a chance to question the director why he resorted to a similar voodoo solution to Park Chan-wook in Oldboy to help the lead character forget everything: hypnosis in Park’s film, acupuncture in Bong’s. But as ever with Bong there is a twist. Looking at the needles, and remembering where Do-joon found them, there will always be the question about how much Do-joon really knows about what happened.
Mother might not be the crowd-pleaser that The Host and Memories of Murder were, but it contains plenty of food for thought and is a worthy representative for Korea at the Oscars.