Q&A: Bong Joon-ho


CANNES -- Bong Joon-ho has previously suggested that he is not very good at making films. Audiences and critics may beg to differ. Since shifting from theater to movies and making his feature debut in 2000 with the astonishing comedy horror "Barking Dogs Never Bite" Bong has been firmly on the radar of Korean audiences and international film critics. His second film, "Memories of Murder," about a smart but bumbling cop on the trail of a serial killer, confirmed Bong's promise as a skillful technician and storyteller. But, despite a clutch of prizes at San Sebastian, the picture only emerged slowly to become a cult item among festival programmers and Asian film fans. There was nothing minimalist, however, about "The Host," a monster movie which ran away with Korea's all-time boxoffice record in 2006. Bong gave the monster genre a handful of socio-political twists, with the giant eel created as a result of an environmental abuse while the responses to the monster's rampage through Seoul were both hysterical and disorganized. The film premiered in Cannes and within Asia there are plans for local-language "Host" sequels, including one in Chinese. Bong spoke with The Hollywood Reporter contributing editor Asia Patrick Frater about his directing philosophy and an Un Certain Regard entry that promises to be another package that may not be quite what it seems at first sight.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What should we know going into "Mother"?

Bong Joon-ho: They should know that this is a thriller and a crime drama that is different to previous work in the genre. I hope that audiences can accept this "Mother." Actually, I don't set out to break the conventions of the genre, but I really want to express the drama it holds.

THR: What in particular?

Bong: How the mother is such a fireball. This is the story of a mother and her son. He is wrongly accused of murder. The authorities give up on the case too quickly and the mother fires the lawyer. Then, in order to prove her son's innocence, she then looks for the killer herself.

THR: What does all that mean?

Bong: Well, the mother is not actually a detective. But what she is doing is following her maternal instincts. And I want to show how far she will go. How extreme she becomes. And in doing so, I want to push the audience too.

THR: Your stories are each very different, but possible recurring themes are human weakness and fragility and how we are trapped by poor communication. Are those the links you see in your body of work?

Bong: Those were not themes I set out to portray at the time I made "Memories of Murder," "The Host" or "Tokyo," but with hindsight they are there every time. "Mother" is different. Maybe communication problems are there again, but this time I want to show just how far a person will go.

THR: What is it you want to achieve with your audience?

Bong: Before being a film director, I'm also a member of the audience that watches films. And I want to make the kind of film that I'd watch myself.

THR: So you are an unreconstructed art house director?

Bong: Not really. I'm part of a pretty demanding commercial mainstream. What I'm trying to do is find fresh, new ways of appealing to a mass audience.

THR: So what films do you admire and enjoy?

Bong: These days I like watching American films from the 1970s, as they seemed to pay equal attention to artistic and boxoffice criteria. From the late 1960s, I like John Frankenheimer's "Seconds," and from the 1970s John Schlesinger's "Marathon Man," which is political, historical and extremely effective as a thriller.

THR: Korea has produced a generation of stunningly talented directors such as Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon or Kim Ki-duk. Are you a group? I've heard that you critique each other's scripts.

Bong: The directors you mention are all talented and hard-working guys. I'd strongly deny that we are a group or even close personal friends. But I would say that we all talk about DVDs, our collections, who has borrowed what from whom and who is slow to return each other's discs. We are film fans.

THR: Even before the global credit crunch, the Korean film industry has been said to be in a state of crisis. Is crisis just something that journalists talk about or is it real?

Bong: Unfortunately, the crisis is real. Period. Consider the following. Korea dropped its Screen Quotas system at the wrong time, our second window of DVD and TV is shrinking rapidly and, third, we have a very serious piracy problem in Korea. Put those factors together and people are leaving the film industry to find jobs elsewhere and investors are providing less money. That, in turn, reduces the number of films being made. But, and it is a big but, while we are in crisis now it is not as bad as the one that Korean film faced in the 1970s and 1980s (when much of the industry was under state control). The future is still bright.

THR: Is the adaptation of French sci-fi novel "Le Transperceneige" still your next directing project?

Bong: Yes. That film should be released in 2012. So, right after "The Mother," I'll be going back to work on the screenplay.
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