The more cineastes get to know Bong Joon-Ho and Park Chan-Wook, the more likely it is they’ll be known as the Spielberg and Lucas of Korea. They’ve already redefined Korean cinema, and made huge blockbusters that have outgrossed each other (Oldboy was a huge hit, but The Host‘s gross was so high that 25% of the population has theoretically seen it). But who’s whom, or – more to the point – who wants to end up as George Lucas? Both are supremely gifted, and have shown their talents through a couple of films that could be called masterpieces. You could nerd out and tap Bong as the Lucas figure, partly because he gave Park a copy of the Manga of Oldboy. But to flip that script, more damning evidence comes this Friday, as Park has already made a (Vengeance) trilogy, while Bong has made his monster movie with the masterful The Host, which can easily be called the best monster movie since Jaws.
And the big screen high of The Host is one of my favorite movie going experiences in recent memory. I already had tickets to see the film Friday night as part of a festival screening when I got an invite to interview director Bong. As such I was offered a complimentary ticket to see the film Saturday afternoon, and loving the film as I did, decided to watch it twice in a day. Shortly after my second screening, I sat down with Bong and an interpreter. Bong speaks some English, and would sometimes respond in my native tongue, while other times he let the translator do her job. The film opens Friday, and should be sought out.
I was wondering are there any of the Free Park Kang-du shirts , did you make any extras, are they for sale?
As you can see there were many T-shirts, and everyone was wearing them, so myself and the crew thought "Hey, we’ll get one afterwards," but, due to budget constraints they were made in China, so after a couple days of shooting and poor storage, they were too smelly, rotten, and impossible to wear. But we have the design still so maybe we should make it as a souvenir.
I’d buy one! (Bong laughs) I have to tell you I thought the film was amazing, I absolutely loved it. You’ve said that the scene where the daughter shows up and starts eating (which is revealed to be a dream) is the heart of the film. It seems the sort of thing you can’t get away with in America. Do you face any pressures to make it more linear?
That was in the script from the beginning, and even when people were reading the script they were like "what happened?" "Why is she here?" "Is this a typo?" (laughs) But for me it was the most important scene, it’s an objective illusion. To me there was never any confusion, but the people around me were not as sure. Something I found out after the final cut of the film was that at the time, the investors and distributors didn’t like the scene and there was some talk. "We should take that out, normal audiences won’t understand it." But the production company took care of it, so it never reached my ears.
With the last two films (this and Memories of Murder) you’ve been writing genre pictures, but what makes them some of the best films of recent memory is how you interlace these human moments into the story. So, when you’re writing it, you seem to embrace the framework of genre… one of my favorite scenes in Memories is when the main character is having sex but then his penis falls out, and moments later his girlfriend’s cleaning the blackheads out of his ear… so when you’re writing how do you weave those in? How do you balance it out?
Honestly, I don’t know what to say, it’s just how I work. My starting point is from an American genre type film, but I’m never trapped by it. Although I may start with the idea that Memories of Murder is a thriller, or The Host a monster movie – and I do – but from that point on I get further and further away from the genre. Find those, you know, cracks in the genre is where I add my detail, or my Korean details or Korean emotions. Also, all my characters are very normal or very weak, so it’s very natural, it’s fundamental that audiences will be drawn to the more normal person. All my characters have faults and defects.
What was the genesis of The Host? What made you want to make a monster movie?
Well, I’m not one of those big or manic fans of the monster movie genre, it’s not that or that it’s my slogan "I have to make one of these films!" It came from the location, the Han River, When I was younger I lived in an apartment by it, and watching the water flow back and forth I thought "what if the Loch Ness monster had popped out, what would happen and what a mess that would be?" So it might have been juvenile, but it stayed in my head, and eventually turned into a film.
So when you get ready to write something like this, do you go out and rent the Orcas and King Kongs and the Godzilla vs. Megalons and all the genre pictures? I ask because one of the things that I find so great about The Host (and Memories of Murder, for that matter), is how it understands the constructs of the genre, but also plays with them. Do you sit down and watch King Kong Lives?
For reference or inspiration? In this case, not this kind of typical monster movie, I was inspired by M Night Shymalyan’s Signs and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. For instance in the movie Signs it deals with an alien invasion, but it’s hugely different from other alien invasion films like Independence Day, the reason being it focuses on the family, and isn’t a film of spectacle. It’s about the family, and the minute details of the family. That’s a film that inspired me.
Recently it was announced that Universal bought the right to a remake of The Host. Are you involved at all?
I’m already in the process of preparing two new projects, so I don’t like rehashing old stories, I like doing new stories. I have no interest in doing the remake, and I don’t think Universal has any interest in me doing the remake, so I think we’re both happy where we are right now. I’m just curious about it, it would great to have a director like John Carpenter or M Night Shymalyan do it.
I would like to see that too. I understand that you passed Oldboy on to Park Chan-Wook.
I’m a big Japanese Manga comic book fan. I always read them, they’re always in my bag and in my head. The original Oldboy wasn’t that famous or popular in either Japan or Korea, but sometime in 2000 or 2001 I found it in a very old bookstore, the story fascinated me, and I recommended it Park Chan-wook, he’s a close cinema friend of mine. "Read this, very funny" but his adaptation is amazing. You know the original story?
No, I just know the film.
The beginning part, the first half is almost the same, but the other half is a complete creation. The story of incest wasn’t in the novel. The story of him being in prison for 15 years is the same, but from the prison to incest and on is a complete creation and is shocking and powerful. It disturbs you.
From what I understand he’s producing your next movie. Le Transperceneige, or Snow Train?
Maybe my next next one, yeah, yeah.
I understand that’s going to be in English.
Not exactly. The story is about the train. There are many survivors there, from many other countries, so mixed dialogue, but 30-40% may be in English. The others Korean and Japanese, all mixed.
Is there a role for Song Kang-ho (star of The Host and Memories)?
I can’t speculate.
So, you’re a huge comic book fan?
Yes, I like graphic novel comic books from Korea, Japan, Europe, it’s my hobby. There was a point where I wanted to be a graphic novelist, but though that didn’t come to fruition, I draw the storyboards for my films, so that’s when I pretend I’m a graphic novelist.
In the film "seori" gets mentioned a couple of times. Was that a phenomenon in Korea?
It’s not a phenomenon – it’s actually just children’s play. It does have traditional history. When you go into a field and steal a fruit or two, if you get caught they do give you a pound on the head, but it’s not serious enough to go to the cops. It’s like a traditional things that kids could do when playing. When we were doing the subtitles, we couldn’t find an equivalent word in English, so after we went through an extended thought process, we though oh well we’ll write "seori" and explain it in the dialogue next.
On last quick question, what was the last movie you loved?
The Science of Sleep.
Oh, did you love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?
Of course, that was very good. But I loved The Science of Sleep more.