The Han River Horror Show: Interview with Bong Joon-ho
by Kevin B. Lee
Translated by Ina Park and Mina Park
With his second feature, Memories of Murder (2003), Bong Joon-ho established himself as a major figure in contemporary Korean cinema. A stark, emotionally uncompromising thriller depicting the moral lines crossed by Korean police detectives in hunting a serial killer, the film was hailed both domestically and internationally as a potent infusion of Asian social realism into the conventions of the well-worn crime movie narrative. However, even Bong’s admirers scratched their heads at the announcement of his next feature, a big-budget production about a monster lurking in a river running through Seoul, who preys on its citizens.
To the surprise of most, The Host (2006) became the highest-grossing Korean film of all time. It is undoubtedly a landmark film, one that strives and succeeds far beyond the expectations aroused by a horror movie, and one that points in several directions that Korean cinema might expand, as it continues to rise to prominence on the world stage. The Host certainly raises the bar for Korean cinema on a technical level, featuring innovative special effects courtesy of The Orphanage Studio, whose credits include Hellboy (2004) and Sin City (2005). The sophistication of Bong’s monster special effects attest that such commercial fare is no longer solely in the possession of Hollywood.
But beyond the razzle dazzle of CGI, The Host is also filled with the genuine regard for its characters that all too many Hollywood blockbusters lack . The Host’s ensemble, a dysfunctional family searching for their daughter abducted by the monster, are not placeholders for audience identification shuffled around a digitally contrived spectacle. Bong makes it a point to delve into each character’s sense of bewilderment, misjudgments, and occasional fits of selfishness and cowardice, to fully develop the range of human emotions in the face of disaster and injustice.
The moral and emotional struggles of ordinary Koreans faced with bizarre social dilemmas are a thematic mainstay in Bong’s films. In his Barking Dogs Never Bite, a resident of an apartment complex commits animal abuse as a way of acting out against the banal demands of his life, while another resident tries to solve the animal murder as a way of breaking out of her own humdrum routine. In Memories of Murder, a city detective is appalled by the brutal practices of his rural counterpart in tracking a serial killer, only to become more desperate as each new corpse surfaces. Bong’s concern for the moral destinies and dysfunction of his characters, combined with a trenchant, often bitingly funny view of everyday Korean life, gives his films a realist flavor distinguishable from his more visually extravagant countryman, Park Chan-wook.
The Host may seem like a garish anomaly for a realist filmmaker. However, all of Bong’s films are infused by elements of genre mystique: Barking Dogs Never Bite has a mystery subplot that anticipates Memories of Murder, and its chase climax parodies that of The Terminator. Bong’s films actively engage in a dialog between reality and formula, in a way that critiques and challenges both. Narrative conventions are turned on their ears, while real-life places and events take on a fantastical quality. In The Host, details specific to Korean society find their way into the supernatural narrative, so that by the end we see an ex-student demonstrator making use of the Molotov cocktail-throwing skills he picked up in college to take on the monster.
Equally distinctive is the film’s rather transparent critique of the abuses authored by American foreign policy with the complicity of Korean authorities. The monster is created when a U.S. military scientist orders a Korean subordinate to dump toxic chemicals into Korea’s Han River. When the monster emerges, the Korean police and military prove inept at capturing it; instead they impose martial law and detain dozens of civilians suspected of being infected with a virus carried by the monster. Such commentary is unprecedented for a major Korean release.
While the film tells the story of a fictional disaster (thus making his critique less explicit), Bong intended to make references to real-life events. Bong was inspired by an incident that took place in 2000, when a U.S. military employee ordered 480 bottles of formaldehyde to be dumped into the Han River (the man was arrested, given a suspended sentence, and is now back at his original job). Moreover, the media and government mania stirred by the virus in The Host, which proves to be nonexistent, is meant to reference the Iraq WMD fiasco. And the U.S. military’s indiscriminate use of a mysterious toxic chemical called Agent Yellow alludes to the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam.
It is ironic that Bong’s most genre-oriented film is his work most loaded with political subtext. The Host takes its place in the tradition of sociopolitical allegory disguised as sci-fi and horror, from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Them! to Dawn of the Dead and (if you believe Robin Wood) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If Bong has drawn from these or other Hollywood films in creating an unprecedented smash for his domestic film industry, his timing couldn’t be better. The recent relaxation of the quota on importation of American films into Korea, under pressure from the United States, has cut the number of domestic screening dates for Korean films in half. As Korea finds itself host to an impending invasion of Hollywood product, the Korean film industry will need to be more competitive than ever to retain the patronage of its home audience. In that light, The Host offers a prime example of how Korean cinema can beat Hollywood at its own game.—Kevin B. Lee
Cineaste: Why did you put so much political subtext into this film? Do Korean audiences like that?
Bong Joon-ho: It’s fun for me to bury my political comments here and there in a film, but this is also part of the tradition of the monster or sci-fi genre. It was a double blessing for me to convey some political commentary in the film and have it work within a genre. For instance, the opening scene, when the two scientists are pouring chemicals into the Han River refers to an actual event that took place six years ago. But at the same time it’s a very typical monster movie opening. So for me it was great to hit both at the same time. It’s not like I’m putting raw social commentary in the film. It is integrated into the entertainment value of the film.
Some Koreans believe that the Host is a moving family story; others say, “Wow, we’re totally bashing America!” But there are more of the former.
Cineaste: Is there a lot of “America bashing” in Korean films?
Bong: Some films do to some extent, once in a while. But to quote a famous Korean critic: “This is Korea’s first legitimate anti-American film.” And she gave me four stars.
Cineaste: Perhaps this may start a trend in Korean films.
Bong: It would be hard for this to become a trend. When The Host first came out, some critics said that by drawing America in this satiric way, the film would limit its appeal to mass audiences, that the satire would make them uncomfortable. Of course, after it became such a big hit, critics reevaluated and said that the younger generation really likes those elements in the film. But overall, those elements weren’t the focus of the film.
Cineaste: What films do you admire that have this combination of monster genre and social subtext?
Bong: It’s not a traditional monster film, but Jaws, especially the first half, was good. A shark appears at the beach, and there’s all this hysteria and confusion in the community. Then the mayor wants to keep the beach open and urges people to go into the water. So this hysterical environment was a very good model for me, because there’s a lot of social commentary in there.
Cineaste: When this film gets distributed in the U.S., do you think any of these “America bashing” issues will come into play? Has there been any talk of recutting the film for U.S. release?
Bong: There’s been no talk of recutting. Actually I’m very curious to see whether the average American audience will accept this. But if you compare The Host to a Michael Moore film, its social commentary is very soft. In any case, Hollywood always has some kind of political subtext. Even in the summer blockbuster movies that are supposedly nonpolitical, there is social significance to the fact that the villains come from the Middle East or North Korea, though many Americans don’t think of it that way. Audiences can find social criticism in the Host or just flip it around and think that this time it just happens to be the Americans who are the bad guys.
Cineaste: The Host is also very satirical about Korean society, as it makes reference to bribery, environmental pollution, student demonstrators throwing bottle bombs, etc. How risky is it to make films with this sort of content? And what do Korean audiences think of these elements?
Bong: Our military dictatorship ended in the middle of the 1990’s; after that period there was no risk of censorship. So we are now totally free to make whatever movies we want. The one exception is hardcore pornography, which is still forbidden. There was nothing politically risky about making The Host. And bribery and firebombs are not at all unfamiliar to Korean audiences. The interesting thing for them is that the firebomb was thrown at a monster, which made it fun. As for bribery, they see it everyday in movies and TV as well as in real life.
Cineaste: Does that mean that the Korean public is so used to this dysfunction that The Host reflects the audience’s own pervasively cynical view of society?
Bong: The funny thing is that Korean audiences don’t receive it cynically or seriously but as comedy. Bribery and corruption are both very familiar but also very funny. Audiences don’t feel anger or grief. They accept this as a realistic picture of life. Koreans don’t react defensively, witnessing corruption for them is as natural as breathing.
Cineaste: In each of your features, you walk a very fine line in your satire between being moralistic and being nonjudgmental.
Bong: My films are ironic. I don’t feel anger though I don’t accept corruption, naturally. But this strange acceptance of the Korean people raises questions for me. I really wanted to depict the typical Korean attitude in my film.
Cineaste: So is the incredible response of the Korean audience what you expected?
Bong: I was so preoccupied just trying to finish the film because there were many technical difficulties that I had no time to think about how audiences would react. When the box office was so big, I was puzzled. At this point I still can’t analyze why people love it.
Cineaste: Of your three features, Barking Dogs Never Bite is still my favorite because of the simplicity and directness of the satire and the affection shown to its characters despite their many weaknesses. A lot of those qualities are still present in The Host, though now wrapped up in a genre package. Do you think genre accounts for why Barking Dogs Never Bite wasn’t successful in Korea but The Host is?
Bong: No, it’s a question of sensibility. Audiences then didn’t appreciate black humor. Recently the producer of that film has speculated that if Barking Dogs Never Bite had been released two or three years later, it would have been more successful. There has been a shift in sensibility among Korean audiences.
Cineaste: The members of the family and the Korean authorities responding to the creature share a certain level of incompetence. When the family is incompetent we laugh, but when the state is incompetent, we are terrified. Did you notice this possible contradiction?
Bong: The audience was emotionally attached to the family from the very beginning of the film. It is one thing that the nation is not able to do what they have to do, and it is another thing that lovable loser characters are incompetent in the film. I feel it is generally true that people think that ‘the system’ is in another universe, in outer space.
Cineaste: What is behind your fascination with ‘lovable losers’ in your films?
Bong: It’s like an obsession with me. I like putting these characters in impossible situations that they can’t deal with. That’s what makes powerful drama. When you have a superhero going on a mission, the outcome is too predictable. If you’ve seen my films, whether it’s these losers going against a serial killer or against a creature, it’s the same structure. I think through those characters I can differentiate myself from Hollywood genres. Korean audiences are very used to watching a Hollywood superhero. In Korean films they want someone they can relate to.
Cineaste: Your films are very attentive to nuances of human behavior and social morality, elements that one doesn’t readily associate with contemporary action movies that rely heavily on special effects. How did you preserve a sense of genuine regard for humanity through the film, especially given the strain of big-budget, special-effects filmmaking?
Bong: It wasn’t my wish to make a big-budget spectacle. My intention to show a creature coming out of the Han River turned out to require a big budget. I really believe it’s difficult to make a big-budget film, especially within the Korean studio system. It’s not something I want to do. In Hollywood, it’s very structured. You have several producers, a line producer, an executive producer, second unit, third unit, etc. But in Korea it’s the director who does all that. So as the scale gets better, it gets harder mentally and physically.
It’s easy to lose your sense of humanity making any film, not just monster films. Even with Memories of Murder, it could have turned into a cold, barren thriller, but with the detective character played by Song Kang-ho you have this overflow of humanity. With The Host, what kept this film human was the quality of the characters and the acting. In monster films you typically have a scientific reason for why the monster came to be and what their weaknesses are. Most of the story focuses on the monster. But in this film the monster comes out right at the beginning and then it’s mainly about the family, what each character is about, the details of their stories. I think that’s why the film retains a human aspect. If you want to be really picky about it, I don’t think you can say The Host is a monster movie. It’s more of a kidnapping movie. The kidnapper just happens to be a creature. It’s all about the family coming together and what they overcome.
Cineaste: How did you conceive of the monster and what makes a good movie monster?
Bong: I wasn’t interested in the conventional creature you find in movies or computer games, I wanted to give my monster a very realistic feeling, as if it were a creature that you could actually find somewhere. The bigger the creature is, the less realistic he becomes. If the creature can hide behind a bus or truck it is more realistic.
Cineaste: We see the monster after the first fourteen minutes of the film, which breaks one of the taboos of monster movies, which is not to show the monster until the last possible moment. But aside from breaking taboos, dramatically why do you feel it is necessary to do that?
Bong: For the viewer it is necessary, because after the appearance of the monster there is the kidnapping of the little girl and the emergence of the virus. So it was important simply as a matter of story structure.
Cineaste: In monster movies like Godzilla and King Kong, we are terrified of the monster but by the end we also feel a bit of pity, that the monster was in some ways a victim of the environmental or social abuses of human beings. Did you ever consider portraying the creature as a kind of victim of the abuses of human society?
Bong: For this film I really wanted the sympathy to go to the family. Of course our monster too was constructed under those circumstances you describe, so in a sense it does deserve our pity. As a matter of fact, at the climax when Gang-du (Song Kang Ho) takes the pipe and strikes the monster in the mouth, I had a close-up of Gang-du and his face goes from rage to pity, as if he is thinking, “You’re sort of in the same situation as I am in.” It wasn’t something that came as an accident. It was something that the actor and I discussed, that at this moment we should show some pity for the monster.
Cineaste: You set this up earlier when Gang-du is held captive by the government, and he is treated by the scientists in a way that they probably would have treated the monster.
Bong: They are mirror images. If you notice in the beginning, Gang-du trips a lot, especially when he’s running away from the creature. And the creature in the beginning slips and rolls around a lot. It’s not actively presented in the film, but there are parts that pass you by that are supposed to show you these parallels underneath the story.
Cineaste: In all of your films there is this running tension between seeing others as comrades and also seeing them as adversaries. As a storyteller, how do you come to make your decisions over whom we feel sympathy for and how we regard each character in this struggle between community and alienation?
Bong: I do like to delicately manipulate the specific reactions of the audience at a given moment, but I like to include room for ambiguity. In everyday relationships between people there is always ambiguity. I tend to doubt myself. Even if I feel strongly about something, I don’t feel definitively convinced.
Cineaste: Do you have any interest in working in Hollywood?
Bong: I have some offers and I am reading scripts but there’s nothing definite at this time.
Cineaste: So much of your art seems founded on a deep understanding of Korean society and moral dilemmas. If you go to Hollywood, what does that mean for you as an artist? Looking at other Asian directors who went to Hollywood, what concerns come to your mind?
Bong: I am not in any rush because I do have all these projects in Korea that I’ve put a lot of work into. There was a Korean director who came to the U.S. and spent four or five years trying to get a project off the ground and ended up going back to Korea. If I went to Hollywood on my own, it would be hard for me to keep the final script rights, the final edit, which I currently enjoy in Korea. For me, instead of me just jumping into Hollywood, I’d like Korea to keep building its own power and bring elements from Hollywood. In The Host, we had a Hollywood actor, Scott Wilson, in the film, and we used The Orphanage for special effects.
Cineaste: What was it like working with an American special effects company? What were the challenges in communicating your vision to them?
Bong: I think that I and The Orphanage decided to enjoy the cultural differences instead of treating them as burdens. The people at The Orphanage were young and open-minded. They decided, “Oh, we’re doing special effects for a Korean film, so we must learn about the Korean culture.” So every week we’d go drinking, they’d throw up, and so forth. I think it was the perfect combination. When it came to the creature’s design and motion within the story, we on the Korean side brought that to the table. The Orphanage brought their technical expertise.
Cineaste: There is a rumor that Hollywood plans to remake The Host. I find it ironic that the U.S. has pressured the Korean government to relax its quota for Korean films to screen in theaters and allow for more Hollywood product, since Hollywood keeps seeking Korean films to remake. What are your thoughts on this situation?
Bong: The screen quota is a done deal. The number of Korean films guaranteed to screen in Korea has been cut in half. The Korean film industry is worried, but Korean audiences still love our films, so we just have to trust in them and in ourselves. Hollywood’s huge, big-budget blockbusters seem to be lacking in creativity, as do their endless sequels. But once in a while there will be a powerful film that comes out.
I think M. Night Shyamalan’s films are smart. He’s very particular and he follows a Hitchcockian style, so he’s able to draw from the rich tradition of Hollywood. In terms of the Korean box office, we’ll be eternal rivals with Hollywood. I think now we are at equal strength, so we’ll see what happens.
Copyright © 2007 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXII, No. 2