I’ve said it one times too many already but for the purpose of this article, it’s really worth reiterating again: I’m a big fan of South Korean film. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that I jumped at the opportunity to interview Bong Joon-Ho, a great voice within the oeuvre of South Korean films and a leader of the movement to turn it into a world wide product. Snowpiercer, his latest hit, is an even bigger, bolder move than we saw from his countryman Park Chan-wook who went from directing the OG Oldboy to last year’s ravishing Stoker.
In his transition from South Korean to world wide voice, Joon-ho has brought with him his distinctive voice and the inimitable courage of South Korean film. Though occasionally aided by a translator, Joon-ho and I dove into his filmography, how it has escalated and changed throughout the years, the importance of telling an international story, The Host, pessimism’s place in film, and the infamous Snowpiercer debacle he had with the Weinsteins, including what they wanted to cut from his director’s cut.
I wanted to say I’ve enjoyed all of your movies so far, especially “The Host”. I’m a big fan of “The Host”.
Bong Joon-Ho: Oh really? Thank you.
I thought it was excellent so thank you. So, diving in to “Snowpiercer” – first of all, this is story that is based on a French graphic novel, filmed largely in the Czech Republic, produced by a South Korean company and distributed by the Weinsteins here in America that also features a cast that pretty much represents all corners of the globe.
BJ: Yeah. Yeah.
So, it’s really a grab bag of colors and cultures. You just really present an international film in such a way that you don’t usually see. What about the film necessitates such an international approach?
BJ: It’s about the last survivors of mankind on a train, so naturally the production process became that way as well in terms of people working on the film. It’s people in narrow and long corridor-like environments. But really, rather than it be more about global – different languages or different types of people or nationalities – there’s really like divisions in two’s. Whether it’s the rich and the poor, whether it’s the people who want to maintain the system that exists or those who want to change the system. You can really divide it or look at from that point of view. It’s more a division into two’s rather than “Let’s represent all kinds of people.” You have a Korean director and cinematographer and Czech Republic crew members, an American visual effects supervisor, U.K. stunt coordinators and many European- even Romanian actors, Icelandic actors, Korean actors in “The Host”. Everyone who worked on the film was a filmmaker and it’s kind of the same everywhere- it wasn’t like because of those aspects it was very chaotic where it was like “Babel” – it was pretty smooth. Republic of Cinema.
Yeah. I thought that was so cool. You usually don’t see that. Usually it’s a much more narrow focus. This is a South Korean film or this is an American film. But this felt like a film from the world.
BJ: Yeah, a sci-fi movie.
You had a notorious back and forth with the Weinstein companies about which theatrical cut you would show to audiences here in America. I remember that being somewhat of a big deal and eventually you got your way. “This is the film I made, this is the film I want to show.” Can you talk about some of the changes that they had wanted to implement and how you thought that might have changed the overall film?
BJ: It took a long time. Almost one year.
Just as a negotiation process?
BJ: Very hard to say that’s it’s a negotiation. They have the power, I am just young Asian director- I have no power. But anyway, for me, my previous movies are all my director’s cuts. I have 100% creative control in Korean. I am not a control-freak, but anyway I control everything in the movie; of course the editing and the final cut I have. And also, the Weinstein company, I heard they always do that kind of thing: changes. That is natural for them. So that’s normal for them. The way he works is normal for him. So we kind of knew going in it that it might not be easy. There was a cut that was created that’s 20 minutes shorter and was tested in New Jersey last year. The 200 people that were there are the only ones that actually saw this film.
What did that 20 cut minutes include?
BJ: Some here and there, here and there, and the dialogue. For example Chris Evans, “The baby tastes the best!” That kind of thing.
That’s one of the best parts of the movie for me!
It’s bringing the darkness of South Korea in.
Because I feel that that’s something that kind of defines South Korean movies is you’re willing to go places that typical American audiences can’t quite swallow. And that’s what I really like, I’m not going to talk about this much in the article, about the end.
BJ: We never hesitate with that kind of thing. Something deep and dark.
BJ: And also the moment when Tilda put out her tentures. It’s a funny moment. but they wanted to cut it out. And also some parts of conversation between John Hurt and Chris Evans in the night- that kind of thing. It’s 20 whole minutes. But the [audience] score was not good! And then two months later they did another test screening with my own version- the score was relatively much higher! And many things happened. Let’s put some voice over, or maybe or not. It was their decision to release it this way. It’s not like I went up to the Weinsteins and poured gasoline over myself saying, “I’m going to kill myself!” It’s a limited release but it’s the director’s cut and so I’m really excited for that.
Yeah I remember watching the news story surrounding it and crossing my fingers— I didn’t want to see this changed version of it, I really wanted to see the original. So I’m glad we got to see that cut because it sounds like a significantly better cut. I want to talk about your filmography in general and this idea of escalation in terms of systems breaking down. You take “Memories of Murder” which is essentially about police interrogations breaking down—
BJ: They fail.
Yes, failing. Then, you take “The Host” which is about government failing. And then, to me, “Snowpiercer” is about, in a lot of ways, humanity as a whole failing. Are these ideas that you’ve broached in terms of a type of escalation of themes or has this been a more natural and organic progression?
BJ: I fucked the whole world. But I never thought about it that way, but just hearing what you said- perhaps. I was just thinking in terms of this is a sci-fi movie from a dark point of view and just wanted it to go bigger. I really just wanted to make a movie about one generation of people coming to an end and a new generation beginning— it’s a spoiler but— the two kids that survive, it’s a beginning of a new era. You can only do that in the genre of sci-fi. It’s not so often you get the chance to make this time of film. It’s also a story about the evil system. It’s the same in ‘Memories of Murder’ – the evil 1980’s in South Korea. The military dictatorship is a very dark and evil system.
Torturing people to get the results that you want.
BJ: It was everywhere, violence at that time. And also, “The Host” — the system disturbed the family to save their own girl. The system never helps. They even disturb. They stopped at the family. That’s back to, I think, this is the same story. The train. It’s an evil system.
Again, similar themes.
BJ: Ed Harris is very convincing. He has logic behind it and he almost succeeds in seducing Chris Evans, his character. It’s terrifying because such an evil system also has its own sick logic to it.
Until you lift the floorboards and you see a child cranking the wheels—
BJ: So up unto that moment he was almost there, he was seduced by it. Sometimes this actually happens— like when they break down big ships to take parts out- you can’t fit a person in there so they use 6-year olds and 7-year olds. Recently, I think this month in National Geographic, you see 20 or 30 kids lining up to eat lunch before they have to go in and do this type of work in that environment. It’s horrible. It’s not sci-fi. In the real world that happens.
Talking about that, how this not being strictly sci-fi— I saw a lot of parallels between the circumstances in the train with the haves and the have-nots to real life situations of global inequality across the world. I was wondering how much of a reflection of the real world did you want those elements of the film to be?
BJ: I’m inspired from very luxurious department store or very nice hotels like this. If you look at it this way— you can divide the train into two halves: from the tail section, where it’s dark and dirty, to starting with the greenhouse section, to the engine, is sort of where the wealthy people live and it’s very luxurious. If you compare it to a high-end hotel or a luxurious department store, there are places where the paying clients go. Everything is fancy and fake and very garish- that’s where people with money go, but if you turn a corner and go down the hallway past the scaffolding sign, you have dark hallways, dark and exposed pipes and cement— that’s where the workers go. Originally the rich people in the front- they are originally some kind of passengers who pay the ticket. So, the people who paid money to board the train- they are the rich world where everything is luxurious. But in discussions with his designer it was all about talking about how this world is fake. They trick themselves, they lie to themselves and say, “We are happy. This is the best place to be.”
Going off that, I had a discussion with a friend and fellow critic after seeing the movie. He talked about how his theory was that maybe this wasn’t actually the world; that this might have been some kind of psychological experiment like the Stanford Prison Experiment. Seeing what would happen if you convince people that the world as they knew it was gone and they had to live on this train, and subsequently what kind of class social systems would grow out of that. So I’m wondering, what kind of interesting theories and feedback have you had from people who’ve seen the movie? Do any in particular stand out to you?
BJ: So many. Especially in France and Korea; just really interesting analysis. Some crazy perverted Korean guy wrote in his own blog everything that is sexually or about sexual impulse. In the beginning part of the movie there is a battering ram, for example, it’s a metallic phallus. And then when we get to the water supply section where it’s all liquids. Also the character that John Hurt plays, Gilliam, and the character that Luke Pasqualino plays, Grey, their relationship. And there’s someone who divides the train sections like the history of mankind- torch battles and primitive man and just sort of dividing each car into different periods in human history.
Very interesting. I also noticed in the press notes you made an allusion to Noah’s Ark, which is something that I thought of while I was watching that- except instead of God destroying mankind, mankind has destroyed mankind. And that was an interesting juxtaposition. Whereas in the Bible story there is this notion of going forward into something better, in this you don’t necessarily see that – it doesn’t look like progress towards a promising future. Does this imply a somewhat pessimistic view that you have about humanity; that we are all kinda doomed and on this one-way track towards hell, in a way?
BJ: In my view, it’s acutally a very optimistic film. Of course the journey and the process there’s a lot of sacrifice involved and dark moments but overall I think it’s positive because this is a system where these young kids are inside the machinery trying to keep it working. In the end, that system is destroyed and it’s destroyed by our own hands in a very deliberate manner. Nan is the character who wants to go outside but it’s Curtis who hands him the matches that gives him the ability to apply that vision- to complete that intention. So, in the end you see life, you see something living and survivors. So, I think it’s quite hopeful.
Having made films exclusively in Korea and then kind of shifting gears and doing something more for an international audience, almost more an American audience, do you see yourself shifting back to doing South Korean films for a while, or going back and forth, or maybe just staying with these American films?
BJ: It all depends on which story I am fascinated in. It’s always the story. What is the story. What am I going to be crazy about and attracted to. That’s really what decides where to go next. It’s not like I sit down and goes, “Oh, this time I’m going to go for a domestic audience or make a movie for an international audience.” That’s only after you make the film- you look back and realize that’s what it was. It’s really about that sort of crazy feeling that I get where I have to do something- where it’s a character or situation or image. It’s not like I can be a worker who gets the project from my agent and makes it and says, “Oh, what’s next?” — It has to really drive me to this point of wanting- or having to do it.
So, following that up— is there anything that you’re working on right now?
BJ: Now I am writing two script simultaneously. One is very small size Korean language movie and the other one is relatively bigger but smaller than “Snowpiercer”. We also use Korean locations and US locations on that one. Mixed.