Bong Joon-ho, director of Mother
With Nicolas Rapold
Korean director Bong Joon-ho's follow-up to The Host tells the story of a determined mother's attempt to absolve her peculiar son of murder charges. Starring a screen icon famous for her maternal roles, the tragicomic film, nominally an investigative thriller, follows the character to the extremes of devotion, culminating in emotions that may not even have a right name.
Could you talk about the lead actress Kim Hye-ja, Korea's most famous screen mother?
Her debut in Korea was about 47 years ago, well before I was born. She always portrayed a typical loving, caring mother. When I turned on the TV, it was always her playing that role. Personally, I always thought that the actress had something a bit crazy about her. But her roles never had that side in her, and I wanted to work that kind of thing in.
Was that a shock for Korean audiences?
I kind of wanted to show the dark side of the moon. Korean audiences did respond with a bit of shock when they saw this role. There's a scene where she goes to the funeral of the girl [the murder victim], and she gets slapped. It was a very difficult scene to shoot, and we shot it many times, and she was slapped many times. And she said that's the first time she's been slapped across the face ever! Not even just the movies, in real life. You would have thought in these dramas this would have happened. When I asked her, she said, "Of course! I'm never going to be slapped. I'm the loving mother of Korea! When would you ever slap her?"
Kim Hye-ja really enjoyed this dark role she was playing because it was so different for her. She really got into it, and she said, Let's take it to more extremes. Let's see this guy's brains getting on my face! She pushed me! I was very surprised.
Your movies often get praised for the mingling of genres and tones.
Many people say they feel many genres are mixed in my films, but it's not that I'm always trying to mix up these genres consciously, or insert a comedic scene to make people laugh. I just put these things because they would naturally happen in life, and some of these things just happen to be funny. Of course, sometimes I do reference genres and try to break them.
Could you talk about the look of the movie and the locations in town and in the lovely countryside?
In Memories of Murder, I had a very specific idea that the location be very specific and genuine. Like Fargo by the Coen Brothers. But in this movie, I wanted to erase that specific locality, and really went for impressive, beautiful scenes to frame the characters in. Even for Korean people, it was hard to recognize where the shot was from. It was a hodgepodge of different locations. Nature is very serene and beautiful, but the situations these characters are in is so desperate and trying, and I wanted that contrast. Repeatedly I used very long shots where Kim is a small dot in the landscape. Like the scene where she is walking on a road by a cemetery.
A number of shots also box her in, like when she visits her son in prison and is framed by multiple windows.
We used a very unique set of lenses for the production of the movie, handmade lenses from Germany that were suited for layering effects and depth of perception. Very big, heavy lens! The feeling of these lens is very classical. There's a certain mood that the lens makes that reminds me of 70s American film. And I like that effect.
Could you talk about the next project you're working on [Transperceneige]?
It's based on a French sci-fi graphic novel. I will soon be going into screenwriting. It's not so famous a graphic novel, published in France and Korea only. I found it in a small bookstore in Korea, and I was fascinated by it. I finished the whole book in the bookstore! The world has been covered by snow after a big natural disaster, and the remaining survivors live on a running train. The train is running all the time, across the earth! There's a fight between classes on the train, for space and resources.
Because the scale of the movie, I'm envisioning a multilingual cast of many races and nationalities, not just Korean. English, French, Korean, Japanese dialogues all mixed. Big chaos!
Catherine Breillat, director of Bluebeard
With Nicolas Rapold
In her new film, director Catherine Breillat (The Last Mistress) elaborates on a Perrault fairy tale about a young girl who marries Bluebeard an unsightly rich man rumored to murder his wives. The medieval-set story, shot in untouched ancestral lands and castles in Limousin, is interspersed with modern scenes of a girl telling her older sister stories.
This is a classic fairy tale but it also feels like an exaggerated depiction of a girl marrying a much older man.
You're the first person who's noticed that! [Laughs] I thought that aspect would create a huge scandal, but nobody noticed or referred to it. [Laughs] Especially the scene, for example, after Bluebeard has left on his first trip, when we see her on top of the castle with the teenager. Bluebeard comes back, and she throws herself into his arms. I thought that would be an absolute scandal, but nobody mentioned it. The thing that people notice is that there's no sex or nudity.
How was it making another period film after The Last Mistress?
I was preparing to shoot Bluebeard when I had my stroke and, after that, because the film was very dark, I was a little afraid of dealing with the subject matter. Afterward, I wanted to make The Last Mistress to show people I hadn't disappeared by making my biggest period piece of all. I always make period films in a handcrafted way. I love touching the fabrics, choosing the locations. I'm always fascinated by how you can transform a location and use the same location for two or three different settings.
Perrault's Bluebeard story, being a fairytale, has a moral: don't be too curious.
The best way to ensure that child will do what it's forbidden to do is to tell them not to do it. When I was a child, I always did what was forbidden. That was what drew me. That was the desire in this tale. [Bluebeard] gives the young girl the keys, tells her not to go into the room, and of course she's inescapably lured to opening that door. It's the same thing with sexuality. Everything that's forbidden to us, it makes us unavoidably drawn to it.
But it's not something that's forbidden for a practical reason, like, don't touch the stove because you'll burn yourself. Here it's: "Don't go somewhere you don't know, because I know what's there. Don't go where I've been." It's the opposite imagery from Eve: whereas Eve gives the man the apple, here it's the man who gives the key.
Besides the story of Eve, something one of the sisters says about marriage reminded me of Plato's Symposium story, about finding our other half.
I just thought of that myself! [Laughs] Now it seems obvious. You're looking for your other half but it has to be identical; it can't be something different.
Maybe there's a bit of Plato's cave in the film, too.
The idea that you see better underground is a Hermetic truth, because in the Hermetic myth you see better at night than in the day. Because at nighttime you see the stars and the entire universe, whereas in the day you can only see the sky. These myths are all on the same level. We all have the same feelings, the same emotions, we all react the same way. We all are identical, whether good or bad. So the fairytale is part of these prototypes of fiction we identify with.
It's striking that when the girl first sees Bluebeard, you have her looking into the camera putting us in the position of Bluebeard.
I often do that identification. I argued about that for a long time with my first assistant. It's what I call the subjective reverse angle [le contre-champs subjective]. It's when you place the camera in the position of that person's gaze. Then you don't have to show that character, the character is eclipsed.
But nowadays to avoid these long fruitless arguments, I film what I call "fuck you" connecting shots. There's a way of filming that's not allowed; I'm always told that I can't do that, but I do it, and I manage to edit those scenes, and they work. I always shoot scenes according to my sense of beauty.
What comes after Bluebeard for you?
I've just submitted three days ago the script for a second fairy tale: Sleeping Beauty.
Corneliu Porumboiu, director of Police, Adjective
With S. James Snyder
I think it's interesting, that you use the word "Adjective" in the title. Obviously you're interested in this movie with what words and justice mean, and what it means to preserve order.
I do have an obsession with words. When I was writing the script, I tried to be quite precise with the words, and I started to think of this subject when I heard a story about how this brother betrayed another brother on a case of hashish. I asked myself: Why would they do this? And so I envisioned this police officer who writes out these reports every day, following the rules, but then starts to see it different day after day. He starts to see reality, and these words he's writing, in a different way. How do we represent our own reality? At the end of the world, is it all about a dictionary or a bible? I don't know.
When you say "dictionary or Bible," you mean the difference between words and morals? You seem very focused on this issue in the film, of what it means to be a good person in your own heart, versus a good member of society.
In my first film, 12:08 East of Bucharest, I was very curious about the definition of revolution: what does that really mean, in terms of in the moment? And I think there's a parallel here, in my interest of what's best for the state versus the individual. For me, it's an issue. After the revolution, I think the state is more important than the individual, in the end, it's more important to be concerned for the good of all the individuals. My films definitely deal with this issue of what's best for society; it's not so simple.
Why do you think there are so many captivating films springing out of Romania lately? What's inspired you? What have you been waiting for?
I think it's quite complex actually, because there was a time when cinema was a big propaganda tool for the communists and it held people back. But a lot of people wanted to make films, and now they finally can, and I think this is why you see this hyperrealism in so many of our movies, trying to show reality as it really is and not some propaganda version of reality. Many of the characters in our movies are regular people, dealing with real issues that people confront in real life. I think so many of us want to make movies that finally tell the world what we're facing.
Samuel Moaz, director of Lebanon
With S. James Snyder
In recent years, an escalating number of Middle Eastern filmmakers have released works focusing on the 1982 Lebanon War, reexamining an invasion, and an occupation, that many failed to fully comprehend as younger members of the Israeli military. The latest example, Samuel Moaz's Lebanon, tells the story of a tank crew rumbling across the Israel-Lebanon border as part of the first wave of the invasion, drawing upon Moaz's own experiences as a terrified and traumatized tank gunner in creating a harrowing vision of a what it was like to find oneself on the war's front lines.
Why did you decide it was finally time to tell your story?
It was a need, really, a need to unload, to expose the war naked, without all the heroic stuff and all those other clichés. It was probably a need to forgive myself as well. I realize it was part of my destiny, to be part of the war, but I was now in a situation where I could take responsibility for my part in all that went on.
You were a tank gunner, and the tank gunner in the film has a full-out breakdown in this movie. He's totally devastated by what's going on, and seems shell-shocked from the very first time he has to fire a round...
The gunner in the film is named Shmulik, and that's actually a nickname for Samuel. I reacted much the same way he does, though for me it was probably more on the inside than the outside, like you see in the movie. It was horrifying.
He sees some horrible things in this movie, through his gunner scope.
All of that, though, is less horrible than what really happened. On our editing room floor, you would find a scene that in the end I decided to cut out of the film because I knew that it would be just too much. In the case, it was probably more smart than right, because these are things I have seen, the worst things I've ever seen in my life.
What influenced you to show the conflict this way? Since we only see what the gunner sees through his scope, it almost felt like a Hitchcock movie, with the fixed point of view.
It's not supposed to be an objective point of view. The concept was that the entire film should take place inside a tank, and the war is seen only through the gunner cross. The intention was that I wanted to use only my subjective memories, and tell the story of an injuring of the soul. And I realized that you can't tell that sort of emotional story in a classical cinematic structure.
I didn't want the audience to understand. I wanted them to feel what these young boys were feeling, and to totally identify with the characters, trough which you would experience and begin to understand what it's like.
What is it about the Lebanon War that has led to so many recent films?
As a conflict, this was just chaos. And I believe that's what makes the Lebanon War analogous to Vietnam, this blurring of the civilians and the armies. This wasn't the 6-Day War, following the rules of the game, if you will. There weren't two armies wearing uniforms. In Lebanon these rules didn't exist. The war took place inside neighborhoods, and because of that, this is a story that needs to be examined.
How have the audiences in your homeland responded?
It's hard because in my time, if you weren't a fighter as a young man you had to walk home everyday through the backyards because people would see you on the street and if you didn't have a gun they would look at you. It was a thing you were supposed to do, be the big boys on the playground, and when you're in battle and shoot something full of gasoline it almost felt like you were watching fireworks.
We had a private screening of the film, and I was worried about being called a traitor because I showed these soldiers crying. But instead this woman came up to me after and said "Until now, it was just my own opinion about war. But now I'm starting to think a little differently about my two little kids and my sister's boy who has to go into the army next year. I'm started to reconsider my priorities." Here was a woman on the right side of the political map, but a movie changed her priorities. That gave me a serious sense of achievement.
Don Argott, director of The Art of the Steal
With S. James Snyder
Philadelphia art aficionados have been following the drama for years: the turmoil surrounding the Barnes Foundation of Merion, Pennsylvania, and the attempts by many to relocate the art collection of the late Dr. Albert Barnes to downtown Philadelphia, an act that seems to be in violation of his will. Director Don Argott didn't know much about the drama when he first set out to make The Art of the Steal, approaching the controversy with an open mind. But what he found was a vicious and volatile legal battle that dealt not only with the issues of Dr. Barnes' legacy, but also the larger themes of fine art, commerce and a consumerist society gone mad.
You followed this unfolding legal drama for some time. Were you surprised by all the twists and turns this battle took?
We wanted to be fair in telling this story, but the more we dove into it, the more resistance we would encounter from the Barnes side. What we found was an intriguing story, not just from a controversy standpoint but also from the fact that people were uneasy wanting to get back into it. It was probably halfway through shooting when we started getting a feel for what the film was going to be and how powerful the issues were becoming. There are so many moments in the film where, at any point, things could have turned one of two ways. Things could have gone this way and been fine, but instead they went this way and all hell would break loose. Hell broke loose a lot.
But ironically, that was good for the movie, wasn't it? With all this hell breaking loose, the movie really became about a whole lot more than just a few paintings in this one city. You touch some universal chords here...
That's the thing, this is not an art story really, it's a story about power and political corruptness and the value that we've placed on culture, and how we've tried to monetize everything in this culture at the expense of anything being sacred or special any more. That was the big appeal from my standpoint. Halfway through the film I took a trip to Ireland, and you go there and you realize that in most places in Europe there's such a sense of history and reverence for the past. And here we are in the middle of this story, looking at the Barnes collection and one of the few places left in this country that is very special and important. It should be this shining example of something that should really be left alone, or even promoted, but then you look at all these people lined up against it and I feel like we've gotten to a really bad place in our culture where everything's driven by dollar and trying to drive extra money through tourism.
Here in New York, though, we deal with these issues all the time, between places like the Guggenheim and the Whitney, and all the galleries in Chelsea. This notion of art and commerce is a pretty familiar one here. How have New York audiences in particular reacted to the work?
The big difference between the crowds in Toronto and the audiences here has been that Toronto viewers were perhaps a little more sympathetic. In New York, it's clear that people like the movie but then there are a lot more "buts" in the Q&A. "I love the movie, but..."
New Yorkers are super sophisticated, and they understand art, but at the same time they don't know this whole story and so they're a little skeptical as to who is in the right and who was in the wrong. And some just disagree with me. One person came up after a screening and they said "I really love your film but I totally disagree, and I said, "That's great, you're free to disagree." But it's so rare, to get people talking and thinking about a topic after the film has ended, and what I loved most is that after the screenings here in New York, almost everyone was going out of the theater talking. This great debate erupted, and that's all you can ask for when you set out to make a documentary.