Riding a sci-fi train: His ticket to a broader audience?

Last updated 05:00 28/06/2014
STAR: Tilda Swinton.

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He has been referred to as Korea's version of Quentin Tarantino, with Quentin Tarantino himself recently likening him to Steven Spielberg. Now, with the ambitious sci-fi action film Snowpiercer, Bong Joon Ho makes his English-language debut and a bid for a broader audience.

The film is the most expensive South Korean production ever, with a budget of more than US$40 million (NZ$45.6m), and broke box-office records when it was released there last year. The film has also weathered a high-profile behind-the-scenes tussle with American distributor the Weinstein Co., which reportedly wanted to cut 20 minutes. Ultimately the film being released in the United States, opening in Los Angeles on Friday, is Bong's original version and the same as has played around the world.

Having first garnered acclaim on the international festival circuit with 2003's humour-laced serial killer procedural Memories of Murder, Bong really broke through with 2006's environmental-themed monster horror movie The Host. His follow-up feature was 2009's intense psychological character study Mother. The sheer scale of Snowpiercer and its star-studded cast mark another step for Bong, and the film arrives on a wave of expectation from his keen international fans.

"I feel I'm a genre filmmaker in Asia," said Bong of how he envisions himself. "I love the conventions of genre cinema, and I also love to destroy those conventions, to create my own unique genres within the genres."

In Snowpiercer a failed global attempt to slow climate change by tampering with the Earth's atmosphere leads to a new Ice Age, rendering the world an uninhabitable wasteland. An industrialist who designed a supertrain that travels an interconnected series of tracks spanning the globe has herded the planet's survivors onboard. The poor masses are in the back in squalor, while the elites live in unfettered luxury at the front. After 17 years, a leader emerges from the back, starting a charge forward car-to-car toward the engine.

Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige and with a screenplay written by Bong and American writer Kelly Masterson, the film is an international production both in front of and behind the camera, with a cast featuring North American and British performers Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Alison Pill, Jamie Bell, Ewen Bremner and John Hurt, Romanian Vlad Ivanov and Koreans Song Kang Ho and Ko Asung. The film has a Korean cinematographer, British stunt coordinator, Czech production designer, American composer and American visual effects supervisor. The main shooting was done on a soundstage in the Czech Republic, large enough to fit four train cars end to end.

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"We all live in the cinema republic," said Bong of the film's multinational team earlier this month on the morning of the film's US premiere as the opening selection of the Los Angeles Film Festival. With a mop of dark hair and a few stray strands of gray, the 44-year-old Bong has a restrained enthusiasm about him, mixed with a grad student's air of slight distraction.

The film comes after last year's English-language debuts by two other top South Korean directors. Both Kim Jee Woon's The Last Stand, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Park Chan Wook's Stoker, starring Nicole Kidman, garnered mixed results with critics and audiences. (Park is also a credited producer on Snowpiercer.) Their stumbles heighten anticipation as to whether Bong can break through to a wider audience.

"Whether you call this his Western or Hollywood debut, I think it's not an apt description of what this is. It's very much a Bong Joon Ho movie," said Tom Quinn, co-president of Radius-TWC, the boutique label of the Weinstein Co. releasing the film. When the film opens in 10 markets on Friday it will purposely be going head-to-head with the latest Transformers film. A theatrical expansion is planned, with the film likely arriving soon on VOD platforms as well.

Reviews have largely agreed that the film is pure Bong, with the international genre website Twitch hailing it as a "visionary new work ... a demented and stunning thrillride." Variety called the film "enormously ambitious, visually stunning and richly satisfying" while adding it is also "a surprisingly thoughtful contemplation of man's inhumanity to his fellow man, and whether mankind is worth trying to save at all."

Bong first came across the graphic novel in 2005 in Seoul, where he lives, and was immediately struck by how cinematic the idea of moving car to car in the train would be. "The structure of the train was the structure of the narrative," he said. After writing a draft of his own, he reached out to Masterson, screenwriter of Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, which Bong admired for its tight simplicity.

Swinton's character, known as Mason, was written as a man, a functionary and enforcer of the status quo. The actress and Bong had been looking to work together, and so he proposed to her that she play Mason. The script was never changed, so throughout the film Swinton's character is referred to by male pronouns or as "Mister."

"She is familiar to me, he or she or whatever, she's really a collage of every maniacal, dictator-stroke-coward, self-publicising, mouthing plutocrat you've ever seen," Swinton said.

Some 24 separate train cars were created for the production, including an aquarium, a greenhouse, a nightclub and an elaborate engine car. With the film's sprawling and diverse cast, scheduling became key, as catching Chris Evans in particular around his duties as Captain America in the Avengers franchise took some doing.

Though Bong has a laid-back and friendly manner, he also obviously has a well of intensity, as he faced a showdown with the formidable Weinstein Co. and won.

"The results are important. It's been a complicated process to get here," he said, speaking in both English and Korean. However, he diplomatically added, "That word 'battle' is probably not the right word. It was a collaborative effort.''

Added Radius' Quinn, "We are releasing director Bong's cut, and we are releasing exactly what he wants us to release."

Though Bong said he has been sent numerous potential blockbuster and franchise pictures to direct, none has spoken to him as clearly as his own projects. For now he is working on two scripts of his own, one set entirely in Korea and one half in Korea, half in the US.

With Snowpiercer Bong has continued his genre cross-pollinations, making a politically minded action movie that deals with real-world issues in a setting on a scale that is both personal and epic.

"This is sci-fi and very pure," he added. "So it's very immediate, the ideas and the message. It's a simple structure, the rich are in the front, the poor people are trying to get to the front and defeat them. Like Spartacus' story or Occupy the Engine Section. Not Wall Street but the engine section."


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