Korean Filmmaker Bong is a Hit at HFA

“This movie is often called a thriller or suspense, but it is simply about a mother... although this movie is not the right one to see with your mother.” This is how Bong Joon-ho—one of the leading directors of the current Korean film renaissance—introduced his most recent movie, “Mother,” on February 28th at the Harvard Film Archive. “I showed this movie to my mother last May, and since then, for seven months, we haven’t spoken a word about this film,” he said, implicitly summarizing the mélange of wit and sincerity in his work.

“Mother,” as Bong commented, is a film about a mother who devotedly dotes on her mentally-challenged, twentysomething son. The son, Do-joon, is eventually accused of murdering a high school student. Convinced of his innocence, his mother commits herself to exonerating him, a decision that highlights the macabre limits of maternal love. “Mother” is scheduled to be released on March 12 in the U.S.

Following a question from the audience apropos of lead actress Kim Hye-ja, Bong talked about the primary incentive of filming “Mother.”  “[I devised] a plan that would give me the opportunity to work with [Hye-ja],” he answered.

“In Korea, Kim Hye-ja is known as the iconic symbol of a mother. But, due to my perverted taste, I’ve always had this on-going suspicion that she was, in fact, a psycho, and I wondered if she ever had the chance to express her ‘psychotic-ness.’”

Bong also mentioned that after the basic storyline was completed, he met with Kim Hye-ja in a restaurant to discuss the film. To his delight, Kim was pleased with the plot, and the production ran smoothly thereafter. And while Bong was busy filming “The Host,” his co-screenwriter Park Eun-kyo—a former student from one of his screenwriting workshops—continued to polish the script.

Bong said, “[Park] was especially helpful as a collaborator mainly for two reasons: that Park was a woman, as the movie was about a mother, and that she was from the countryside, where the movie is set.”

In South Korea, Bong Joon-ho is known as one of the biggest blockbuster makers. His second film, 2003’s “Memories of Murder,” instantly became the fourth most watched movie in the country for that year. Considering the film dealt with a high degree of violence—a perverted serial killer who victimized numerous young women—its commercial success was monumental. “Memories” was also critically acclaimed, screening at several international film festivals, such as the Cannes Film Festival, London International Film Festival, and San Sebastian International Film Festival, the latter of which awarded Bong its Best Director award.

A larger breakthrough, however, was yet to come. “The Host,” which premiered in 2006 at the Cannes Film Festival, broke box office records in its home country with 13 million viewers in four months. The film focuses on a mutant monster generated by a U.S. Army laboratory which illegally dumped chemicals in the Han River (the “Seine of Seoul”). Bong was especially applauded for his ability to mix the conventions of a genre film—a monster film in this case—with his facetious social satire and the poignancy of familial bonds.

After the release of “The Host,” Bong began to receive international attention. The acclaimed French film journal Cahiers du cinéma ranked the movie as the third best film of 2006. Film critic Wesley Morris from The Boston Globe also listed “The Host” as the ninth best movie of 2007, after it premiered in the States.

At the reception following the screening of “Mother,” Bong left a personal message to Harvard students concentrating in film studies: “About 15 years ago, I was also a student studying cinema—some bitter-sweet memories. You must feel the same way.”

“I hope you come up with unprecedented and unconventional movies—I will look forward to them,” Bong said, this time without a hint of his trademark sarcasm.

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