Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bong Joon-ho's monsters

What I learned from talking to Bong Joon-ho was that I harbored a sort of Asian fetishism in the sense that I transferred onto him a superior way of dealing with my own country's horrific behavior. That is, we spoke in 2006, right in the middle of Cheney/Bush's reign of bloody idiot moral nihilism, and here I was, impressed by my subject's cool and friendliness while talking about his new and awesome monster movie, THE HOST.

What did I expect, for him to leap over the table and rip my throat out while shouting "FUCK THE FTA!" just before snapping my spine?

In a way I kind of was. The US was, after all, deeply fucking Korea's economy on multiple levels in that clueless way that was the signature cruelty of the Bush years.

But I *was* and continue to be impressed with Bong's ability to separate people from their monstrous institutions, whether governments or traditional families.


“Could you please call our creature Steve Buscemi?”, Bong Joon-ho asks, claiming that Buscemi’s character in Fargo was the “character reference” for the while creating The Host’s” title creature. I give it some thought--hmm, Buscemi’s murderous goofball character rep’s a very American sort of monstrosity, The Host deals with the same--and I say, “Okay. Sure. Steve Buscemi it is.”

We’re in Manhattan’s dingy flower district in the ramshackle offices of Magnolia Pictures. Bong is the writer/director of The Host, which is simultaneously the best monster film in forever, the most scathing political film in recent memory and a terrific tale of dysfunctional family bonding.

Bong’s a boyishly handsome 38 year old dressed in the international film director uniform of all black with a smart gray designer sweater as concession to the late winter chill. Talking with him is produces a enjoyable sense of playing cat and mouse with the roles always shifting. He makes very smart films and his one of his greatest skills is finding the absurd in the tragic and vice versa.

He says that the inspiration for his film came “When I was young and I lived by the Han River. From my apartment window I would look down on it and think, ‘What if something like Loch Ness, Nessie, came out of the Han River?’ When I first pitched it to my producer, I actually Photoshop’ed a picture I took of the Han River and Nessie together and said, “This is what the film is.”

Bong sites three films as inspirational influences. Assumably for its water-based anxieties, Bong namechecks Jaws, while John Carpenter’s The Thing manifests in the Host’s use of cool-toned tight spaces to crate a chilly, brand of claustrophobia. Also singled out is M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. “The story deals with the invasion of an alien or something,” he says somewhat dismissively, “but it’s strongly focused on the emotional details of the family.” And the Korean family and society is currently facing challenges as scary as those mucking about The Host. But that’s for later.

Like his excellent serial killer film Memories of a Murder, which eschewed a Seven-ish crescendo of horror in favor of a closing series of meditations on the mystery of human behavior, The Host too subverts Western horror structure requirements for more emotionally resonant goal.

And hence the reason why Steve Buscemi not only appears in the film’s first fifteen minutes, but in daylight. “I really hate the convention [of] waiting an hour just to see the tail of the monster,” he says, which means the audience ends up spending its time simply wondering “what the creature looks like. Or, ‘I wonder how we kill it?’ That would have been very”--a shrug-- “ordinary.”

But doing it his way, “the audience, already having seen the monster, can explore other things. They can concentrate on the needs and emotions of the family.”

Of course, the 800 pound gorilla sitting in on any conversation about The Host is its politics. “When the creature is given birth by an America pouring all this formaldehyde into the Han River, I guess...you could say it’s a metaphor for America.”

“When we showed it at Cannes. There was one journalist in particular who, during the press conference, kept repeating, “The monster’s America, right? The monster’s America!””

Beat. “Anyway, it turns out he was from the Middle East.”

After out laughter subsides, he adds, ”But I think it would be kind of wrong to just simplify it so, well...simply.”

True: after the opening salvoes of anti-American sentiment, Bong widens his view to include an inept/corrupt Korean government and the pan-national corporate misery profiteering enabled by Steve Buscemi’s rampage. Says Bong, “The film becomes very universal if you ask the question, “Has any state or country or system ever helped the weak person?”

And so the film is at heart about “the torment of the family--the family not getting any support from the state or the society.”

Adding to the film’s crankiness is the reality of a South Korea grappling with The Korea-US Free Trade Act, the mere mention of which has Bong hooting “FTA!!!” in (possibly) mock horror.

To its detractors--the majority of South Koreans--the FTA is viewed as sweetheart deal for US pharmaceutical and industrial agricultural interests that would totally screw up Korea’s peasant family rice farming tradition, while also erasing regulations that have required that fifty per cent of Korean film be homegrown, thus allowing US film product to flood the Korean market.

“I grew up watching American films,” Bong says, “listening to American music, eating American fast food”-- ‘Super size me!’”

“But at the same time there’s that stress that’s coming from stuff like the FTA and the [resulting Korean public] frustration and hysteria. As a filmaker...the FTA...it really stresses me out. It’s not just political ideology so much as an everyday life...with the farmer, it’s the same thing: it’s about their harvest. It’s connected to life itself.”

Does he think those stressors explain the film’s incredible success in Korea? He goes for the feint with a grin: “I don’t know. Maybe it was the aggressive distribution?”

There’s no pause when I ask him if he feels a kinship to Guillermo Del Toro and his blend of the beautiful, fantastic and political. “Yes. But I think he’s more visually extravagant than I am, or beautiful. For me, I want to create such images, but at the same time, there’s a twisted part of me that what’s to destroy the beauty!”

With our allotted time running out, I go for the easy closing question. What does he expect US audiences to take from his film?
“My hope is they enjoy this weak family story. Even in America, unless you’re of a very special class, [audiences should be able to] enjoy the everyday Joe, family story....and if they leave the theater thinking, that would be great.”

Even with that scene where the one good American proves himself useless?

A parting grin. “The actor is Canadian. Blame Canada.”

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