Director Bong Joon-ho and his new film Snowpiercer are rarely in the same place at the same time. This time last year, with the film in the can (it was shot on film, not digitally), he was heading the Edinburgh Film Festival’s International Jury, but Snowpiercer’s US and UK distributor, the Weinstein Company, wouldn’t let him show it. This weekend the festival is screening the film, but Bong won’t be there – just as he was oddly absent when it was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in February.
The strange life of Snowpiercer, premiered to great acclaim in Asia last August and finally getting a US release next week, would infuriate most directors but the South Korean is calm about its fate. Based on a graphic novel, the film is a riotous triumph of the imagination, a violent, steampunk-inflected story about class warfare erupting on a train zipping through a snowbound apocalyptic future.
Sci-fi fans across Europe and the US have been clamouring to see the film; some travelled to Paris for its release in October, but most have been left cursing Harvey Weinstein. Having acquired the rights to the film, Weinstein then put it in limbo, planning to cut it by 20 minutes and add an explanatory voiceover in an attempt to make it more easily palatable for multiplex audiences (ignoring the fate of the reviled, studio-imposed voiceover version of Blade Runner). He mocked up a rough edit and tested it with audiences. But Bong fought back. He had collateral – his film had sold well everywhere else in the world and had already recouped its budget in South Korea alone. Eventually, after a year of wrangling, Weinstein quietly dropped his alternate version and agreed to a small, boutique release in the US of the director’s 126-minute cut.
It is strangely fitting that this should happen to Bong, 44, a versatile director whose films feature unlikely heroes fighting extraordinary odds. His 2006 breakout film The Host, an action-packed black comedy, pitted a dysfunctional family against a giant monster in Seoul’s Han river, while the melancholy follow-up, Mother, found a woman playing detective to save her autistic son from a murder charge. “I guess things just don’t happen the way you want them to or intend them to,” laughs the director philosophically. “Misunderstandings, unintended results, ironies – those are the things that I’m attracted to. When things like that happen to people in real life they just accept it. Those are the things I like to see in films, rather than the man getting the woman, or the goal being achieved.”
Set in the year 2031, Snowpiercer documents the journey of “freeloader” Curtis (Captain America star Chris Evans) from the slums at the back of the train to the luxurious world of the front, with its nightclub, sauna, aquarium and sushi bar. “The most important keyword to me was ‘train’,” says Bong, “and the structure of the narrative reflects that. It’s simple: Curtis travels from the very last section of the train to the front. So the different carriages represent different stages in the story – every time you enter a new car, it’s like a new world that the characters are experiencing. It’s a sci-fi movie with a political background, but basically it’s a train movie – a kind of road movie. And the most important decision I made during the writing was to be with Curtis the whole time. You experience the whole movie from his perspective.” Bong has compared his hero’s journey to Apocalypse Now and The Wizard of Oz, even describing it as “Spartacus on a train”.
Although the effects are superb, what stays longer in the mind is the cast. John Hurt plays Curtis’s grizzled mentor, Jamie Bell is his sidekick, and most striking of all is Tilda Swinton as a grotesque matriarch. Bong denies stunt casting and says he wanted to tell a universal story. “I wasn’t thinking: ‘Oh, I need to make a Hollywood film.’ It’s a story about some survivors on a train, people who represent the whole world, so if it was all South Koreans speaking Korean it would be awkward. I felt it would need an international cast, which is why English became one of the key elements.”
Misunderstandings, unintended results, ironies – those are the things I like to see in films
While its premise is clearly far-fetched, Snowpiercer does have its roots in today: the new ice age of the film is the product of an attempt to thwart global warming, while the unrest on the train was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement. “Although the main event takes place in 2031 – which feels very sci-fi – the train starts its journey this year, in 2014,” Bong says. “So everything about the train’s design is very contemporary, it’s now. The reason I love sci-fi is that, although it sometimes looks very futuristic and fantastic, it’s really talking about our world today. So maybe it will strike a chord with audiences in every country … maybe they’ll think: ‘If I was on this train, which carriage would I be in?’ ”
The film’s one-man-against-the-system set-up gained added irony during the creative tussle with Weinstein, with Bong becoming the third A-list Korean director, after Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and Kim Jee-woon (The Good, The Bad, The Weird), to run into trouble in Hollywood. Used to being top dogs in their own country, Park and Kim were not prepared for the Hollywood system, which meant stars, producers and even low-rank execs giving them notes questioning their decisions, from script stage to final edit. Park eventually saw Fox cut 20 minutes from Stoker. The difference for Bong was that Weinstein did not produce the film but only came on board as a distributor.
“All three of us [directors] know each other very well,” says Bong, “And when we talk about our experiences on these films … we’re like, ‘Oh, I had it the worst.’ But they did have a worse time than me, I think. Because Snowpiercer is a Korean film, but with Hollywood actors. I had almost 100 per cent creative control. My own final cut.
“Of course, something happened after the pick-up by the Weinstein Company,” he grins, “but now it’s all OK. I worked it out. But in the case of Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon, they were dealing with companies like Fox and Lionsgate. The Hollywood studio has very strong power, and they were making their first English-language movies.”
For all the drama, Bong enjoyed it. “It was a good experience,” he says. “I learnt a lot.” And next? “I’m fascinated by two ideas, both Korean-language. One is a Snowpiercer-sized movie with VFX [visual effects] – you could call it an adventure film. The other is a very unique and strange, ensemble cast story that’s hard to explain.”
The words “unique” and “strange” recur a lot in conversations with and about Bong Joon-ho, it would seem. “Fucking strange!” he roars unexpectedly. “I need to make a normal film.”
‘Snowpiercer’ screens at the EIFF on June 22 and 28 and is released in the US on June 27