Of all of the great directors who have emerged from South Korea in the past two decades, Bong Joon-ho stands out.
The 44-year-old has only helmed five features and parts of a few anthologies since the turn of the century, but his work has been influential and acclaimed far beyond East Asia. “Memories of Murder” (2003) reset the police procedural, “The Host” (2006) utterly upended the giant monster movie, and “Mother” (2009) is arguably the finest Hitchcock thriller old Alfred never made.
Now we have Bong's first English-language production, “Snowpiercer.” It's a dystopian sci-fi epic based on the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige.” At $40 million, it's the most expensive South Korean-financed movie ever, if you don't count the Sun Myung Moon-backed war epic “Inchon” from 1981.
It's easy to see why. Shot mostly in the Czech Republic with an international cast that includes Chris Evans, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Song Kang-ho, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Vlad Ivanov and Alison Pill, it's a wildly inventive story about a supertrain that is mankind's last bastion after an attempt to arrest global warming results in Earth freezing over.
While a handful of the well-off and lucky have lived in luxury for 17 years in the planet-circling train's front cars, the poor who managed to jump on board at the last moment have suffered in overcrowded squalor at the rear. Finally, a revolt led by Evans' Curtis Everett takes the grimy masses through an increasingly surreal series of support cars toward the magical, semi-mythical locomotive.
“I wanted to create a unique, sci-fi action film,” says Bong, who understands English but often speaks through a Korean interpreter. “This was the biggest production in my life, although it kind of has two identities. In Korea, the media call it the biggest film ever, but then Chris Evans goes on TV here and says, ‘Yeah, I'm working on a small, unique film, a very challenging movie.' ”
Speaking for himself, the “Captain America” actor told us why he signed up.
“Anytime a director of Bong's capability comes your way, and you see other actors like Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris, who can't be bought and choose movies for good material, on board, it's hard to say no,” Evans says. “And Bong is fantastic to work with. It's always comforting when you know you're working for an artist, for somebody who has a vision. Unfortunately, that's not always true in filmmaking; someone else is picking up the tab, and they have an opinion.”
Although that wasn't the case during production — like most Korean auteurs, Bong is used to full creative control and final cut, and “Snowpiercer's” producers had no problem with that — things have been rather rocky with the film's American distributor. “Snowpiercer” is being released here by The Weinstein Co.'s Radius division in the full cut that has already played successfully elsewhere in the world. But that's after a long tussle between company head Harvey Weinstein and Bong over how long the U.S. version should be.
“The Weinstein Co. is used to figuring out how to appeal to an audience, so they play around with the cut and try different things,” Bong says as diplomatically as he can. “It's a very natural thing that they do, and not just on a movie like this. So, inevitably, there was going to be some conflict, perhaps. When Harvey suggested some things, I wasn't used to that. But after going through this process, the director's cut that was released in Korea, France and Japan is coming to theaters here. It was a decision that The Weinstein Co. made; I am grateful for it and I respect that decision.”
As for what he wanted to do with the film, Bong says, “It's not about just tackling the message and throwing that at the audience. It's really just the excitement and the beauty of seeing the images. Of course, when you're going home after the movie, maybe some of the sociopolitical ideas that are in the film are absorbed.”
Bong was particularly interested in shooting a film in the narrow and long confines of railroad cars.
“Trains, in general, just make me crazy, get me really excited,” he admits. “It's sort of a perfect cinematic location, and a challenge to shoot. And a train is also divided into cars and it moves like a snake, so that was really exciting. Many things can only happen on a train.”
Bong is now working on two scripts, one in Korean and another in mixed languages. He says he gets lots of good offers from Hollywood, but has no immediate plans to work over here.
“I'm a writer-director,” he says with a sigh, then laughs. “I hate scriptwriting! But I always write my own scripts.”
Maybe just as well. Bong's contemporaries Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon didn't fare too well with their respective American debuts, “Stoker” and “The Last Stand,” last year. That aside, they and many others have created a national cinema that is the envy of the world.
We asked Bong how this happened. He wasn't quite sure at first, but he came up with a good answer.
“I'm part of this wave of filmmakers, and inside the industry you can't see the forest when you're in the forest,” Bong says. “But looking back, I think that it might have to do with the end of the long history of dictatorships in South Korea in the early 1990s. That's when students were in cinema clubs and studied films. I'd see the same group of people at screenings over and over, and then you'd see those same guys a few years later and they'd be directors or producers. It was just a different generation; we were all movie buffs.”