[K-FILM SPOTLIGHT] Bong Joon-Ho Talks 괴물 (The Host)
Scene 1: two janitors find each other by pure coincidence inside an old apartment complex's boiler room. The oldest wanted to enjoy his 보신탕 (dog soup) in peace, but since his plot was discovered, all he can do is talk a little to see if the other will leave. His story? About a mysterious man with a strange connection with those noisy, infernal machines: Boiler Kim.
Scene 2: Weekend, late in the evening. Detectives are 'interviewing' dozens of suspects in a serial murder case, but instead of using the clean and well lit office they go underground in the dirty and dark interrogation room. Between a kick to the stomach and a punch in the face everything seems to go well, until everyone, everything comes to a halt. What's going on? It's time for the most popular show on TV, 수사반장 (The Chief), so everyone, even the suspects, takes a break and watches the show, noodles et al.
Scene 3: A beautiful day near the banks of the Han River. People are enjoying their time out with their loved ones. Some play with their dogs, some bitch at each other for the umpteenth time. Some, like Park Gang-Doo, are walking home with their daughters. But this calm is interrupted by something nobody could possibly ever expect: a dark creature emerging from the river, as big as a bus and fast as a slightly oversized Ferrari. And then it's chaos.
Three strange scenes coming from the mind of the most talented director working in Chungmuro today. We're obviously talking about Bong Joon-Ho, and the films are 2000's 플란다스의 개 (Barking Dogs Never Bite), 2003's 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder) and 괴물 (The Host), which starts its theater run in Korea tomorrow. Bong's films have always had something in common, despite being quite different on the outside: they all start from a black comedy setup, for instance, and then adopt tropes from several genres to create an eclectic mix. And when it comes to subjects, Bong always seems to deal with strange creatures living in this little lonely planet: monsters, (barking) dogs, and most importantly men.
Japanese and American monster films might have creatures the size of a building, but The Host has a little mutant rugrat not even the size of a bus; Japanese and American monster films build the tension before the big appearance, The Host shows us the Baby Monster after a mere 15 Minutes. Japanese and American monster films deal with incredible men trying to save the world, The Host's 'heroes' are one of Korea's most dysfunctional families, and they run a junk food stall. That should be enough to tell you Bong's latest film is not exactly your average monster film, in a country where the genre was often associated with a grown ass man running from men in Dragon costumes, looking like a low budget version of the big thing from Sesame Street, or Bizarro World Teletubbies.
But no, Bong isn't crazy. He knew most of the country couldn't care less about monster films, but he went ahead anyway, as the key of this film isn't the creature, but everything wrapped around it. Just like serial killers weren't the focus of Memories of Murder, or dogs of Barking Dogs Never Bite. Sounds familiar? Extremely well received at Cannes, unanimously praised at its press screening, recording the all time best preorder sales opening with a stunning 99.3% (oh, that uncompromising 0.7% minority), The Host is ready to unleash all the power of Bong's cinematic genius on Korean theaters. And since we're there, we translated a couple of interviews about the film with the director -- one with Film2.0's Kim Young-Jin, the other with Cine21.
Note: some SPOILERS. When they're major you'll be warned.
I really had high expectations, then when it emerged from the Han River, my heart was beating really fast.
Bong Joon-Ho: I'm actually worried people will expect too much, expectations have gone far beyond what we predicted. But while shooting the film the amount of insults, prejudices, contempt, abuse and anxiety we went through was scary. Since I was shooting a monster film, from film people to even friends they thought I was mad, that now that I had a success in the can [Memories of Murder] I already lost my mind... you know, that kind of cynical reaction was pretty frequent. So just like a stubborn high school kid who is told to cut his hair and keeps them wild, I titled the film 괴물 [lit. Monster]. Even then, people still kept saying: "Eh... you don't really mean a monster is in it, do you?". Since people know Song Kang-Ho as someone having a monster-like personality, they reacted like that (laughs).
Those initial first two shots inside the funeral chapel were quite plain, almost like a TV Drama. Then we move to the Han River, and all the spectacle on display makes the film look like a blockbuster, and many films come to mind, like War of the Worlds, for instance.
Bong: The budget's scale might be similar, but what we wanted to show and how we do it is completely different. Also, the film doesn't cling to spectacle like many Hollywood blockbusters do. So if you really have to compare it to a foreign film, it might still follow the alien theme, but more than Independence Day it would be something focusing on the family like Signs maybe?
You've seen the film with an audience before at Cannes, but this was the first time you showed it to Koreans. How did you feel?
Bong: Really nervous. After we introduced ourselves, watching the film sitting with the audience I started sweating cold. I would go from paranoia like: 'Why is air conditioning so bad, even if you're watching the same film, the hotter it is the longer the film will feel' to small details like 'What's wrong with the left speaker?' At Cannes it was different. 'OK, have fun. Have you ever seen something like this?' That kind of feeling, but this time I was really nervous.
We know you were interested in monsters since your high school days. When did you get the confidence to turn that curiosity into a film?
Bong: It was 2001. Probably back then I didn't fully know what I was getting into, so I wasn't afraid. That was right after 플란다스의 개 (Barking Dogs Never Bite) flopped, and back then I was writing the script for 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder). I planned to work together with Cheongeorahm once again for my third film, but just because my past film did well, shooting something like The Host wasn't exactly easy. Thinking about those days, I'm really thankful to Choi Yong-Bae: put in his shoes, hearing a director come to me and propose to work on a film about a monster coming out of the Han River... I probably would have laughed it off pooh-poohing. I brought with me Photoshopped photos, shots of the Han River I did myself with the Lochness Monster pasted on them, and I decided to do this film. I went to him and said: 'There's no story, it's just a monster and that's it.' But go figure, he said yes! That's when it all started.
I was actually in the middle of writing a script entitled 교 (Bridge), as looking at the Han River bridges -- especially Wonhyo Bridge -- from afar always creates a strangely beautiful feeling. Those bridges mix the baroque with the grotesque, and I'll say that knowing I'm ignorant in the matter, but they also have a certain geometrical beauty to them. Anyway, then I heard Bong Joon-Ho was shooting a monster film with the Han River as a background, so sadly I had to stop working on my little creature... (laughs).
Bong: I tell you, those bridges are strange. They evoke strangely overwhelming, surreal feelings. Unlike other monster films, which would have some scientists coming out to explain everything about the monster, we couldn't do that, so in a way it's a little sad (laughs). While writing the script things developed constantly. The first concept was born in June 2000, and in it the monster kept growing simply by eating fish. Then one day it finally tastes human flesh, and where would that come? From a poor fella committing suicide from one of the Han River bridges, obviously! So our Monster tastes the flesh, and starts thinking: "How could I ignore this delicious taste for so long! All that fish infesting the shitty waters of the Han River can't even compare!".
So the thing would just go crazy, come over to the waterside and start eating an immense number of people, digesting them for a long time like an anaconda and then coughing up their bones. If you look closely at the monster after the first attack, it just piles up bodies without eating anyone. This happens because it's in a satiated state, and it's just storing food, in a way. So after tasting human flesh and coughing up that incredible amount of bones, it piles up food to eat later, and starts bothering Hyun-Seo which was captured before. But then when the emergency is announced, the place is surrounded by so many people our little Monster thinks a sumptuous meal is just a little walk away, which becomes the climax and his reason for creating so much chaos. I just hope someone would explain this to people (laughs).
Strangely enough, this monster stores its food (people) and eats it later. And then it even coughs up the bones. Where did you get that conception from?
Bong: Where do you think? National Geographic and Discovery Channel! It has many features you see in real animals. It swallows its prey then vomits it out, and carries it. This process was the core of the story right from the beginning. Usually in your normal monster film the creature definitely kills people, but this one carries them around. So if you look at it that way, then Hyun-Seo just becomes victim of kidnapping. It's certainly not the only animal which acts this way, transporting its preys and storing them. Look at squirrels, picking all their acorns and then storing them. But most importantly we took many ideas from Pelicans, and the way they catch fish with their big beak. Parts of the fish captured are still alive while Pelicans carry them to their nest to be eaten, so we used that theory for the Monster. Amongst the people it carries there are some survivors, and one of them is Hyun-Seo. As for the vomiting of the bones, we took that from Amazonian anacondas. Those animals even eat cows or sheep, and their digestion lasts between 10 and 15 days.
Once they're done, they spit out the bones, but while the 'food' is inside their bodies, they don't eat anything. That's where we got our hints. When the monster appears the first time, it catches many people at once. If you look at the funeral portraits, that's obvious, isn't it? After digestion, the monster vomits the bones of the first attack's victims, and since it feels satiated it just carries Hyun-Seo to its nest. Because the rumour about the virus spreads and people get on the street to protest, they get closer to the waterside. From the monster's point of view, that's a dinner party waiting to happen, isn't it? So it runs after them. If you look at things from the monster's perspective, then that's what happens.
END OF MAJOR SPOILERS
So because of this unique situation, seeing the monster kind of makes you happy and angry at the same time.
Bong: I even dreamed of shooting a film in the Amazons and capturing a real monster once. The monster would never listen to me, it would be all gentle and calm when there was nothing to shoot, then the moment we started filming it would cause a commotion. So I'd go: "Man, we can't control this thing. Even the dogs in 플란다스의 개 (Barking Dogs Never Bite) didn't make such a mess." (laughs) I even planned to put a scene like that in the DVD. For instance, interviewing [Song] Kang-Ho with a tired look on his face saying: "He's usually good and listens to what we say, but today's so damn hot there's no progress." Then the monster would raise hell and the trainer would throw tuna at it to calm it down (laughs). But, hey, there was no money so we had to give up.
What is the Monster made of? It mutates because of formaldehyde but then what, transforms into a fish or something?
Bong: When Designer Jang Hee-Cheol and I started thinking about it, since it was the Han River yes, a fish, a sort of deformed one, that's what you'll feel watching the film. In fact, if you look closely you'll notice it's asymmetrical, it even has strange little legs. Since it had to strut its way out of the waterside, it had to have legs, and its hopping around mixes elements from amphibians and reptiles. Since there are no scientists in the film, nobody explains anything about the monster. I just thought it out (laughs). If people started speculating on its origin while looking at it in a visual sense, then that was enough.
The focus might be on the family, but you can see a certain animosity or even criticism towards Mass Media, the US, the rich and the powerful. Couldn't you emphasize that a little more?
Bong: No, simply because the drama wasn't at the service of satire. It was hard enough to focus on the struggle against the monster, so I tried to relegate all those elements to the background. The key instead was focusing on what's making it so hard for this family. In some ways it's a road movie going in circles. More than trying to go in depth or offering more forthright commentary, I thought burying all those elements within the family's social environment would have been more effective.
Not focusing on the political aspects of the film would be impossible. Nam-Il's past as an activist, the massive protests of street demonstrators, and more than anything what looks to be a very negative portrait of America. Evoking a real life accident like the McFarland toxic chemicals scandal [About a USFK mortician named Albert McFarland who discharged over 100 liters of embalming fluid into the Han River in 2000, creating a ruckus in the media] the film seems to point the blame at the US in a very straightforward way.
Bong: It's much simpler than that, actually. When you think of someone, anyone who might be responsible for a monster emerging from the Han River, then how can you overlook something like the McFarland accident? I read it in the newspaper and instantly changed the script accordingly, I liked the idea that much. After all, even films like ゴジラ (Godzilla) used the dropping of the atomic bomb. Those might be historical events, but they're also a good starting point for a genre film like this.
Other than that we used Agent Yellow as the chemical used to suppress the virus the Monster carries, reminding of Agent Orange [the defoliant used by the US in the Vietnam War]. And anyone could guess the USFK saying that there was 'No Virus' brings to mind the 'No WMD' scandal after the Iraq war. Those are things we already knew all too well, and the only thing I did was naturally adding them to the script, without trying to force things ideologically. The US just happens to be a character in the film, like the public workers 'stealing' change money from the corpses, those strange policemen and more. But of course its weight in the film is much bigger, that's certainly true.
From your debut Barking Dogs Never Bite to Memories of Murder and now The Host, whereas the subject always seems to change, the narrative structure always shows some points in common. For instance, the film always seems to start with a sort of 'missing person' or disappearance. Is there any reason for that?
Bong: That motive is always connected to the journey to find something. Since they're characters far removed from the usual idea of 'heroes', then you're forced to show the process bringing them to such decisive action. When that journey reveals comical elements and then some sadder ones, then drama naturally emerges. I think I have the inclination to focus on weak and foolish people going through a very difficult process or journey in my stories. The more difficult the situation is, the weaker those characters look, and I think that's a good way to stimulate the drama to go beyond the usual boundaries.
Sewers, bridges, the Han River in the film shows many of its different faces, so much you can feel your love for it. But because the Han River has geographical limitations, there must have been some difficulties involved in finding all those places.
Bong: The Han River? I know it really well. I've strolled around this place since I was a kid, let's call it my '나와바리 (slang for turf, territory).' There's many difficulties shooting there, with the sound recording team having the hardest time. The noise on many different places was really bad, and of course the River's water level was a big problem too. When we had to shoot scenes where the water had to have a specific inclination or position, then we had to think about how the water would be at a specific spot and time of the day. And if it wasn't what we needed, the assistant directors had to scoop water out to get what we wanted. And of course the riverside was a problem, as controlling so many people was always difficult. The assistants had it much harder than me, honestly. There's that line always coming out, which walked along with films over all the 100 year history, you know: "Who gave you permission to shoot here!". The big sewer where the monster hides Hyun-Seo really exists, under the Wonhyo Bridge. I recommend you to try going there once, during the rainy season the smell would kill you.
Even the characters have their own unique colour.
Bong: There's no genius scientists or superheroes, so I decided to make things clear from the beginning: this was a pathetic family who could never have a confrontation with this monster. And the biggest loser amongst loser, the most pathetic amongst the pathetic is Park Gang-Doo (Song Kang-Ho), and Kang-Ho was able to bring that core out. You could simply see him as a fool, but as the drama starts flowing he goes through many changes. When you see him doing pathetic things at the food stall and during his desperate struggle we're dealing with a different person. Also, I wrote the grandfather role with Byun Hee-Bong in mind. Since Mr. Byun has played many characters showing a strong individualism, dealing with a character like this which is a little more traditional in terms of the tension, I thought out of the old generation actors he would be the best person to portray this kind of role. He sacrifices himself for his family and is an incompetent father yes, but someone who changes into a sort of fighter to save his family.
For Park Hae-Il's character I had a real-life model to follow. I had this good looking classmate in college, who constantly kept complaining about everything and everyone. Even when we'd be doing demonstrations, he'd pop out with things like: "I look so good, why do I have to participate in street demonstrations?" You can see it as the classic highly educated unemployed man, if you will. Bae Doo-Na plays the most unique character, and you could say it's something born out of this genre. Right at the beginning I thought of people fighting with the monster shooting arrows. You know, thinking realistically there's many archers in our country, and people say they usually don't get along well with other people. Even when staying with their family, they rarely speak and always look absent-minded. That's because they tend to insulate themselves from other people. Bae's real personality fits with the character too, in some ways.
Im Pil-Sung's character in the film is really peculiar. Should we call it the kind of turncoat who will change sides during demonstrations? Did this character have a real-life model too?
Bong: Who would sell their 후배 (college junior) for prize money anyway? Casting for the role was so hard. I needed an overweight man for the role, so the number of casting choices was really small. I needed a fat actor who could ooze that white collar feeling, so at the end of the day I asked Director Im Pil-Sung: "Come on, Pil-Sung. Your dark circles look so good. There's that depth, that strange atmosphere... you look like an owl." Eventually he decided to star in the film, IF in return I helped him write the script for his debut film 남극일기 (Antarctic Journal), but then he cast me in one of his films as retaliation! I have a little part in Im's upcoming short for 인류멸망보고서 (Doomsday Book). I could only obey his call.
There might be a family in the film, but that is not the kind of 'normal', united family we usually get to see portrayed in films or dramas. This is as dysfunctional as you can get.
Bong: Since even the monster is not your usual creature, the family is the same. The fact this is a loosely connected family adds to the idea. Every single member of the family has a strong attachment to Hyun-Seo, but there's no particular other connection with the other family members. What Hee-Bong feels for Gang-Doo is the typical sentiment a father feels for a 1st generation son, but the relationship between the brothers and Nam-Joo is completely different. If you look at the film, there's almost no dialogue between Gang-Doo and Nam-Joo. And besides, he only argues with Nam-Il because he always keeps complaining and bitching. Aren't families like that in real life? You have brothers avoiding one another for years, not talking to each other, how many families have cases like that? It's not like Daily Dramas or Disney movies were all the family is happy and united. We do present it as a family, but there's something else that keeps them 'united.' More important than the concept of family, in this film the real focus is who's protecting whom, and the things you have to do to make a living. [Edited for spoilers]
Gang-Doo's daughter Hyun-Seo has no mother, and her archer aunt more that becoming a surrogate mother feels like a warrior. Yet, the fact her father and grandfather take care of her and the fact that not having a mother leads her to tragedy, if seen in a negative way, would make it hard to pass this as a 'feminist' film. Isn't one of the elements of this film's tragedy dealing with that replacement filling the void in the absence of a mother figure?
Bong: No less than two generations have no mother. It wasn't something I thought about consciously while writing the script, but I guess it ended up that way. With a mother that sense of instability the family goes through would be less effective. To me women and mothers have always been a symbol of wisdom. Since both generations have no mother, the entire family seems to move without a clear sense of direction. The most important thing was the fact the entire family was fighting to protect Hyun-Seo, and then there's the subplot of saving the small child. Even weak people like Hyun-Seo and Gang-Doo can help, protect and shelter people with even more problems... you know, I liked that about the characters.
Plus these are people alienated from the system, people who despite not being helped by anyone don't curse at the system, and embrace each other when disaster hits them. Aren't Koreans like that? For instance, back when the Daegu Subway tragedy hit, more than complaining about structural deficiencies there were more people reacting like: 'if I could make good money [enough not to ride on Subways], if I had bought a car when I entered college, this would have never happened to me". That's a very Korean feeling, and more realistic.
Your next projects?
Bong: I'm not going to direct another monster film, for starters. Never. Also, I won't deal with anything needing a computer for a while. The staff had it so hard that I'll keep from shooting anything near the Han River. My follow up is about a story of a mother and her son, it's nothing that really focuses on visuals, it will be a very 'analogic' film focusing on storytelling, the working title is 마더 (Mother). After that we have 설국열차 (The Snowland Train), which is adapted from a French comic. That's quite big in terms of scale, and has a very SF-like feeling, so it'll take quite some time to prepare. The rights expire in 2011, so I'll have to work hard on both.
괴물 (The Host)
Director: 봉준호 (Bong Joon-Ho)
Cast: 송강호 (Song Kang-Ho), 변희봉 (Byun Hee-Bong), 배두나 (Bae Doo-Na), 박해일 (Park Hae-Il), 고아성 (Go Ah-Sung), 이재응 (Lee Jae-Eung), 김뢰하 (Kim Roi-Ha), 박노식 (Park No-Shik), 윤제문 (Yoon Je-Moon), 임필성 (Im Pil-Sung)
Chungmuro Daily: Korean Press Reviews
Theatrical Trailer (Downloadable, 9mb, Windows Media)
Theatrical Trailer (Streaming, 300k, Windows Media)
Theatrical Trailer (Streaming, 700k, Windows Media)
Japanese Teaser (Embedded Flash)
Teaser Trailer (Streaming, 300k, Windows Media)
Teaser Trailer (Streaming, 700k, Windows Media)
Teaser Trailer (Downloadable, English Subtitles, 3mb, Windows Media)
Teaser Trailer (Downloadable, 6mb, Windows Media)
Host YouTube Clip 1
Host YouTube Clip 2
Making Of (Downloadable, 8mb, Windows Media)
Sina Report (Monster Included) (Streaming, 128k, Windows Media)
Sina Report (Monster Included) (Streaming, 350k, Windows Media)
Sina Report - Edited Version (Money Shots Only (Downloadable, 1.5mb, Windows Media)
YTN Report (Downloadable, 5mb, Windows Media)
Making Of (Streaming, Windows Media)
Message From The Actors (Streaming, 500k, Windows Media)
Guest Special (Streaming, 700k, Windows Media)
Character Making Of (Streaming, 700k, Windows Media)
Special Effects By: Weta, Orphanage, Creature Workshop
Budget: 10 Billion Won
Produced By: 청어람 (Cheongeorahm)
Distributed By: 쇼박스 (Showbox)
International Sales: Cineclick Asia
Rating: 12 and Over
RELEASE: July 27