South Korea has been producing some amazing films in the last few years, most of which never make much of a mark in the United States. While director Bong Joon-ho may have a tough battle getting his new monster flick The Host seen by jaded American audiences, it stands a better chance at succeeding where so many other Korean films failed. After all, it’s already become an enormous hit in Korea and all across Asia with its tale of an eccentric South Korean family, who wind up battling a creature that lives in the Han River when it takes their youngest, and finding that their government isn’t too helpful in trying to get her back. While the film may find its origins in the Japanese monster classics, it’s a unique film experience with far more depth than the genre usually allows.
ComingSoon.net recently had a chance to talk with Bong Joon-ho, one of Korea’s exciting new filmmakers, about his unconventional film.
ComingSoon.net: “The Host” is far more ambitious than your last few movies. Can you talk about why you decided to do a monster movie, knowing that it would involve a lot more effects and CG than your previous films?
Bong Joon-ho: It wasn’t like I wanted to make a sci-fi film or that I wanted to do a film with lots of visual effects, it wasn’t a choice like that. The motive behind this was actually from the space, the Han River, which is a very ordinary space, kind of like how Central Park is to New Yorkers. I’ve always had this idea of what if a creature came out of an ordinary space like that. I’ve had this idea since high school, and I’ve always been dreaming about it and I just felt like it was the time to make that a reality. To make the creature real, that’s where the ambition came in because we wanted to make it real, so we went out to create the best and most realistic creature with the visual effects.
CS: Can you talk about designing the creature and how it evolved into the creature as it is now?
Bong: The first step was that my production designer and I, we were looking for a creature designer and that was the first wall that we hit. Like Ridley Scott had H.R. Giger [for “Alien”], we were looking for that and we ended up finding Jang Hee-chul who actually worked at an internet game company. So Jang Hee-chul and I for a year and a half, we worked together. I worked on the script and he worked on the design of the creature and basically, we’d have feedback going back and forth. It was a process that went hand-in-hand. For instance, if I said, “I need the creature to be able to swallow a person and transport it,” then he would figure out what the physical aspects of the creature would be needed to do that. The script, the idea and the design, they all went hand-in-hand for a year and a half, and in that process, about 500 wannabe creatures were discarded.
CS: Because creature was mainly CG, how did you get the actors on set to see and interact with it so closely, like when it swallows people?
Bong: I’ve looked into a lot of “Making of” documentaries for creature and dinosaur films. According to them, if something swallows something and spits it out again, it is eventually going to be done with CGI, but they use a simple equipment that can do the in and out part on the set. If you watch the “Lord of the Rings Making of” documentaries, they had some of that. There are 120 creature shots in the movie, but 110 creature shots are made by computer graphic animation and ten to twelve shots were by using a real-size animatronics puppet by John Cox Creature Workshop in Australia, so we made a real-size creature head and mouth. With that kind of animatronics, we can get some real feeling of texture and physical existence. In the climax sequence, when the hero pulls out the kids from the mouth, in that sequence, the monster is the real puppet, not CGI.
CS: As far as casting the family who were so important this story, you used a number of actors who’ve appeared in your previous movie “Memories of Murder.” Can you talk about using these same actors in this different situation?
Bong: Of course, I love to find new actors and actresses, but in this movie, the digital FX was a really big burden to me, so I really hoped to work with my friendly family of actors and actresses. If there is any miscommunication or trouble between me and the main actors, it would be a total breakdown because the visual FX is already a big burden. All four of the main actors appeared in one or two of my previous movie, only the little girl Ko Ah-sung, she’s the only newcomer. We cast her in a very big audition process.
CS: I also noticed that you use some of the same actors as Park Chan-wook. Is there a big pool of strong actors you can draw from in Korea or is there a limited supply?
Bong: I think there are more great actors than great directors in Korea, and the directors and producers, they need to go and discover these great actors. I think they need to reflect on themselves and do more of that. There are a lot of great actors on the stage in Korea, for instance Song Kang-ho, he was also a play actor, and then second son Park as well. There are a lot of actors that have been discovered on stage and are now working on screen.
CS: One thing I liked about both of your movies that I’ve seen is the amount of humor in some of the most difficult or tragic situations like in the funeral for the little girl. How important is it to include humor in these situations?
Bong: For me, if you look at the big overall picture, all those things are what makes it real. Those complex emotions, isn’t that what we go through in everyday life? In terms of audiences, I’m sure they can feel a little discomfort thinking, “Am I allowed to laugh here?” that kind of thing, but I think if you watch my films, you get used to that very quickly. As to that group memorial funeral scene, that’s very Korean and very real. You can actually go and see that in Korea. It might feel a little over-exaggerated to Western audiences but it was very real.
CS: Were you trying to make a statement with the amount of incompetence within the government and medical profession or was that just something to enhance the humor?
Bong: In this film, this weak family is in the middle of everything and the focus of the film, and as they’re fighting with this creature, where’s the support? Where’s the help? There’s nothing from the country or society or the system. That’s the real theme of the film. This weak family is actually fighting two monsters, one is the creature, but also the creature that is the system and everything that’s making it hard for them by turning their backs on them. So I wanted to show this two-faced part of that, which connects to the central theme of the film.
CS: Also, can you talk about the part that the U.S. plays in the movie? It’s pretty funny how America goes to Korea and causes all sorts of chaos for everyone in the country with their actions.
Bong: In the opening scene with the pouring of the formaldehyde and from that, the creature is born and then on goes the satire of America. The beginning sequence was an actual event that happened in Korea, so when I learned of that, I was very inspired and that became the impetus and the beginning of the story. It was a very natural process to run with it. I think Americans would probably be very used to satire, but if you look at this film in the larger perspective, there’s also criticism against the inner-workings of the Korean society and anything that’s tormenting this family, there’s commentary on it in this film. The satire of America is only one part of the whole picture. In actuality, in Korea, sentiments towards America covers a fairly wide spectrum, so it’s hard to say that “this is what Koreans think of America.” Opinions vary widely.
CS: There’s a bit of a throwaway set-up for a sequel, so is that something you’d want to do or are you already working on something else?
Bong: The production company has the rights to any sequels there are, so it could be something like the “Aliens” series where they change the director and if someone took this on, and made a great sequel, that’s great. For me, honestly, I’m more interested in doing new ideas and moving onto fresh new stories, rather than remakes or sequels. Right now immediately, I’ll be shooting over the summer, three directors including myself–Michel Gondry and another French director Leos Carax–are coming together to make an omnibus film, thirty minutes each, regarding Tokyo. It’s called “Tokyo Stories” like “New York Stories” and then there are two other features in the works.
CS: Are you going to work with Song Kang-ho again? Since he was in your last two movies, maybe he can be the De Niro to your Scorsese.
Bong: Maybe some time, but in the Tokyo project, I will work with some Japanese actors.
The Host opens in select cities on Friday, March 9.