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Kim Hye-ja and The Multitudes Behind Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Mother’

Kim Hye-ja’s titular character was decades in the making.
Bong Joon-ho's Mother
Magnolia Pictures
By  · Published on February 25th, 2020

Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles.

When you picture Carol Brady, the mom on The Brady Bunch, you probably think of an idyllic version of motherhood that most likely only exists on TV. You have to imagine for actors like Florence Henderson who became famous for playing these ‘virtuous mother’ archetypes it must become limiting – and exhausting – to make the same character choices, in the same kinds of roles, year after year. Eventually, they’ll want a break from the typecasting that’s defined their careers.

And while we never got an unhinged Carol Brady performance, South Korea did get to watch their own “National Mother” Kim Hye-ja distance herself from the sanitized matriarchs that made her a household name for Bong Joon-ho’s brooding neo-noir Mother.

Since the 1970s, Kim Hye-ja has appeared in countless South Korean TV dramas and commercials playing the stereotypical mother figure, most notably for 22 years on the show Country Diaries. For over three decades she played characters who act within a certain set of expectations and boundaries, influenced by the society and culture of the time period. Mothers were expected to act a certain way, which can dictate what a performer can or can’t do in a role. Because of this, Bong Joon-ho wrote Mother specifically for Kim, saying,

I imagined that she must be sick of it… playing the same role over and over again.

He gave her a character that explores the multitudes that exist within all mothers. He explained, “A mother’s love is the most noble in the world, but when that love becomes excessive it can turn into madness.” With her role, Kim Hye-ja was able to explore completely new aspects of a character she had become synonymous with.

And while it’s thrilling to simply see the incongruity between an actor performing against type, it’s watching Kim turn from her mawkish TV persona and explore the dark recesses of Mother’s matriarchal violence that makes her performance so utterly captivating.

But as an actor, you can’t really play something abstract like the ‘duality of motherhood’. Conceptual thematic ideas can inform a performance, but to bring a character off the page, you need to be making conscious choices that get you to the goal you set for yourself in a scene. And while actors should always remain receptive to spontaneity, to really give yourself a calculated throughline for a complex character like in Mother, you serve yourself best by beating out your scenes.

All the phrase refers to is going through the emotionally resonant moments of each scene and tracking the choices your character makes that help you achieve your goal. In a broad example, Kim’s character’s ultimate goal is to save her son’s life, so every decision she makes is in pursuit of that. By going line by line, she can attribute specific emotions to each beat, giving herself a granular understanding of how to convey those in the moment. It’s most helpful when navigating an emotionally precarious scene like in the film’s climax when the mother confronts an old man at a junk shop.

Kim’s character enters the scene with a secret the audience is in on: she believes the old man is behind the murder her son is accused of. But through their pedestrian conversation, Kim wordlessly reveals the true undercurrent of the scene that’s been secret to even the audience: she is going to torture a confession out of this man. She’s made sure that each line quietly punctuates this desire, creating a subtle layer to the scene so the revelation comes as a surprise; one she didn’t spell out, but rather let dawn on the audience. Bong Joon-ho said of this moment, “I felt a shudder, which proved to me how much I liked it.” But this wasn’t conveyed just through the intentions she set for herself, but also through sharp eye contact, and perhaps most importantly, her body language.

Body language is a vital part of live theatre, especially since you have to express emotions across large auditoriums, but it’s something that can be forgotten on film as an actor’s body is segmented in the frame. Here though, Bong Joon-ho and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo make body language paramount to the mother by introducing her purely through physicality in the film’s opening shot.

We watch as Kim slowly walks towards the camera through an endlessly vast field, her face a blank slate, giving the impression of sullenness. As Byung-woo Lee’s bossa nova soaked guitar score fills the scene, the mother begins to languidly dance, swaying to the music as her choice of movement becomes more joyful and intentional. It’s reminiscent of a physical theatre practice called Viewpoints that can instill an actor with a fluid sense of spontaneity by focusing on ideas like kinesthetic response and spatial relationship. Viewpoints help an actor get out of their head so they can let their body inform the choices their character is making. There’s no set choreography to Kim’s movements here, she is merely listening to herself and going, quite literally, where the wind takes her.

The moments of dance that bookend the film help capture the core concept Bong Joon-ho and Kim Hye-ja wanted to convey about the duality of motherhood. In the opening, as the music slowly dies, the serenity of the mother quickly fades away. As the title card materializes on screen, we watch as the weight of reality hangs back on her shoulders. This physical shift is somewhat ambiguous in these early moments, and it isn’t until the film’s final seconds that it becomes clear what the dancing is really representing. The mother loves her son, and as we’ve seen will do anything to protect him, but all at her own expense. Rather than be burdened by motherhood anymore, she swiftly leaves him, gets on a bus, and through some self-administered acupuncture, begins to sway once again to the music. Dancing has always been the physical embodiment of the freedom she has been so desperately craving.

Kim Hye-ja had been discussing her role in Mother with Bong Joon-ho for over four years before filming even began, but Kim has arguably been preparing for this role her entire life. Her decades worth of experience playing the doting mom on television gave credence to her character choices and brought a layer to the role that may not have existed without her. Bong Joon-ho even said as much, “Without Kim Hye-ja, Mother wouldn’t exist.

Kim Hye-ja described her character as a “beast, who acts on instinct.” But it is the inherent instincts of an actress who’s played mother to a nation for decades that ultimately gives this astonishing performance such teeth.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)