Bong Joon-ho: The Most Gilded of the Golden Generation

Last year at Edinburgh Film Festival, Bong Joon-ho headed the International Jury. This year will see the UK premiere of his long-awaited new feature Snowpiercer. We sat down with the Korean filmmaker at last year’s edition to discuss his career

Feature by Alan Bett | 19 Jun 2014

One of the abiding final shots in cinema is the crumbling face of Song Kang-ho in the epilogue of Memories of Murder, his impotent, accusatory stare through the lens, at us and one special other (I will explain). It’s a fourth wall breaker, a rule breaker, a brave way to conclude a film without conclusion.

Its creator is Bong Joon-ho. “You must call him Director Bong,” I was instructed, and thought, ‘Shit, that’s a little pretentious, don’t meet your heroes.’ But then he glided over, all hip in black, failing to conceal a contradictory little smile. This is almost a year ago, back at the 67th Edinburgh Film Festival, when Bong was head of its International Jury. We are sat in the Cineworld cafe, the air is a thick fug of popcorn fumes and children’s screams; it’s the most unfestival-like of festival venues. But Bong is an architect of blockbusters and fills similar multiplexes in record breaking fashion, so it all feels relevant and somehow Zen.

He hopes to do so again with Snowpiercer, a sci-fi graphic novel adaptation with a five star international cast, which screens at this year’s EIFF. But lets start at the beginning, with his supposed serial killer procedural Memories of Murder, a film which grossed a staggering $31m, followed by his sophomore picture The Host, which broke South Korean box office records on its opening weekend. I use the word ‘supposed’ when mentioning the genre of the former, and the same can be said for the B movie monster madness of the latter. Both Memories and The Host tackle bigger issues and Bong’s greatest skill is to sew subtext seamlessly into his quilt of genre staples. We’re blinded by lights while he prods the scars of Korea’s darkest moments “because our modern history is crazy,” he says in his broken English. “In our society everything changes fast. My parent’s generation were born under the Japanese colonial period, and after that liberation there was the Korean War and military dictatorship, ending in the early 1990s. I always focus on something personal, but at the same time it very strongly relates to some historical, political background.” Memories plays over student uprisings and their brutal repression; anxieties of attack from the north; military drills and paranoia. “The murderer killed a very young school student, but the whole country, the government, makes the darkness. At the time my conclusion was that in the 1980s, under military dictatorship, the period itself, is darker than a single murder case.”

"The fourth wall is often broken for dramatic or comic effect, but how often to stare into the eyes of a real life murderer?” - Bong Joon-ho

In other words, the canvas itself is more disturbing than the finely detailed tale of unresolved killings painted upon it. The fear and pain that period instilled is still felt in the current day: “in the title it says memory, but at the same time it cannot be memory because underneath it’s still going on.” He talks of his film, but I imagine also his country, a nation with a story to tell, like Oh Dae-su in Park Chan-wook’s remarkable Oldboy, or the titular character in Bong’s own Mother – both characters holding memories so agonising they must be washed away. “In the last part of the movie,” he says, “the guy quits the job of detective and everything looks clean and changed. But we still don’t know who is the murderer. It’s a very bitter, painful arrow from the past.” And among those many millions flocking to see the film, there was one person in particular that the taboo breaking final glare was meant for. “I always imagined that when it’s released maybe the murderer will come and watch. I really hoped to make the failed detective have eye contact with the murderer who is sitting in the very comfortable seat of the multiplex theatre. The fourth wall is often broken for dramatic or comic effect, but how often to stare into the eyes of a real life murderer, to accuse him?” Roland Barthes once haughtily noted that ‘if a single gaze from the screen came to rest on me, the whole film would be lost.’ Here the theory is reversed, the whole film realised in a moment.

If contemporary Korean cinema ushered in a confident cinema of post trauma, then Bong’s rampaging matinee monster story The Host is the pinnacle. But is it a swaggering rebuff to modern colonisation, or smiling revenge? “That is a real case, it actually happened in 2000 in the middle of the city of Seoul. One crazy American doctor ordered a Korean soldier to pour formaldehyde into the Han River. So when I read this article, wow, I was very happy. This was very inspirational,” he grins, referring to the film’s opening. “This is some sort of a cliché in that kind of monster B picture like Alligator, some crazy scientist pours something into the sewers and bad things happen. There’s a borderline between genre convention and real political scandal.” As ever, the social context is buried within stylish direction and quality narrative. “Kids came to the theatre to watch the monster of course, but maybe their parents had another approach.” Parents, stripped of naïvety, who have seen and perhaps endured. “I think it’s quite a common feeling in Korea: people in their mind believe the system will never help them. Of course there’s a monster, but basically it’s a story of a family who have no power. The young girl is kidnapped by the monster but society, the police and military don’t support them.” I imagine, like any successful Asian film, it’s ripe for an American remake and Bong confirms that, yes indeed, Universal Studios bought the rights some time ago. He doesn’t know what’s happening, unsure of how they will adapt his very Korean subtext. “Maybe monsters from Mississippi?” he suggests. “Some black family or something? Morgan Freeman as Grandfather, Will Smith? I don’t know. It’s up to them.”

But Bong and his Korean contemporaries, in what has been judged a golden generation, no longer require remakes for their ideas to travel. The last few years have seen Park Chan-wook directing Nicole Kidman in Stoker, Kim Jee-woon marshalling Arnie in The Last Stand and Ryoo Seung-wan assembling a global cast for the Cold War-styled The Berlin File. And Bong now spreads his wings with Snowpiercer. “It’s a very intensive action movie,” he says of the film, “because the cinematic space is a train. In a train there is no detour, so we have to always break through the enemies. It’s a very physical movie, but the basic concept is very political, the class system.” Again hiding important cultural questions in an action framework. “What is a human being? It’s a sort of abstract portrait of the human condition.” And it’s finally here after the postponement by producer Harvey ‘Chopper’ Weinstein, who reportedly wanted to snip the film to fit Western tastes, condescendingly deciding, just as he did with Wong Kar-wai’s kung fu ballet The Master, that we all must be judged by the lowest common denominator. I’m happy to report, however, that the version showing at EIFF is Bong's cut.

While discussing the film, it's clear that he was delighted with his international cast of Tilda Swinton, Chris Evans, John Hurt and Ed Harris, among others. “Tilda was amazing,” he beams. “My producer, costume designer and I visited her house in Nairn during pre-production. Her hometown was really lovely. We did many costume and make-up experiments in her house and that was a great memory of making this movie.” He’s been formal and professional throughout our chat, his unruly curls, thick glasses and slick suit combo giving the impression of a mad professor with a hipster makeover. But one name provokes a burst of laughter, his favourite actor – the De Niro to his Scorsese – Song Kang-ho. “He’s kind of a joker character. He never relates to a certain genre – he’s beyond genre, a crazy actor. I really admire him – one of the greatest actors in the world I think. Tilda loved him so much.” As do I. This outstanding performer, who seems conjoined to Korean hit cinema and can blend hangdog sadness into slapstick, transforming tears to laughter like water to wine. 

After finishing up we wander through Cineworld and witness both from overexcited kids hopped up on pick 'n' mix. Director Bong is ushered into an awaiting black car and whisked off for important festival jury duty; I hoof it through the summer rain as clouds gather over Edinburgh. “I love this city,” Bong said earlier, and why not? It’s been good to him, with Memories of Murder an EIFF discovery in 2003, The Host premiering in 2006 and Snowpiercer a year after our meeting. Perhaps each a small step on his journey, helping to gild the golden generation.

Snowpiercer is showing at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 22 and 28 June