Interview: Bong Joon Ho
Bong Joon Ho’s action allegory Snowpiercer is a postapocalyptic variety show of icky violence, gleefully acted political caricatures, herky-jerky pacing, and offbeat sight gags. Or, as the villainous mastermind of Bong’s train-bound dystopia describes the latest insurrection by the underclass that resides in the tail-section: “a blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot.” FILM COMMENT met with the filmmaker (who also directed The Host and Mother) in New York this week to discuss scenes in depth.
I wanted to start by talking about the moment when the young boy named Chan lights a match. That leads into the torch-carrying scene—when Ewen Bremner’s character carries the torch and passes it along. You get a real sense of the train’s entire tail section working together. It’s a moving evocation of the class struggle that’s at the heart of the film.
Exactly. I don’t know if it’s a saying here in America, but in Korea they say, “One small flame can burn a whole field.” I was trying to express that cinematically.
It’s an immensely stirring moment. I’m wondering how that mini-sequence with the torches works within the larger Yekaterina Bridge combat set-piece.
I’m very thankful to be asked this, because people are always like: “What’s the graphic novel? How did you find it?” When I first thought of the idea, I was really happy, but it all comes out of the space of the train. It’s a long and narrow environment and the whole story is about going through the train to the front, but I wanted at one point to go back to the very beginning—almost like what would happen if the rebels left something behind that they had to return for, to go through those spaces all over again. In the Yekaterina Bridge section, I wanted to try everything possible that you might do in a fight on a train, whether it's body-to-body contact using axes, going through a tunnel where the screen goes completely dark and then light again, or using fire.
Of course, cinema is really about light and darkness, and when the light returns, it’s a different kind of light: fire. When the DP [Hong Kyung-pyo] read the script, he loved this particular sequence, and we ended up using real torch light without a single electric lightbulb. It was an adventure doing it that way. I wanted that primitive, almost tribal aspect of the torch, running with a torch. I didn’t want to have laser guns and things like that just because it’s a sci-fi film—I wanted a real earthy feeling. And especially when you see Ewen Bremner running and screaming with the torch you get that. And it all starts from Chan’s small hands and that one match.
Was that part of what initially drew you to the material, that it could hold all kinds of ideas but still have action set-pieces and many varieties of humor in it?
In the original graphic novel the setting is the same, but there’s no idea of revolution at all. The main character’s name is Proloff and it’s really about him—a man from the back, meeting a woman from the middle of the train, and their trip to the front. There’s no Spartacus-type revolt or fighting the system. There’s no Jamie Bell character, no Octavia Spencer character, no Ewen Bremner character—this idea of a group of tail-sectioners making their way forward is not in the graphic novel.
More than making a strict adaptation, I felt you were digesting certain themes, and you had found a setting that could hold the preoccupations you’ve brought to previous films.
I’m friends with the artists of the graphic novel, and they wanted that themselves: they wanted me to do whatever I wanted, to have the freedom to try different things. But of course I retained the spirit of the original that the last survivors of mankind are on this train.
I want to come back to the Yekaterina Bridge sequence, to an earlier moment before the torch sequence: when Chris Evans’s character slips on the fish. When the fish is first introduced, it’s as a threat, an omen of the violence to come: the masked soldiers use their axes to cut it open and spread the blood on their blades. Then, when you reintroduce the fish, its function in the narrative has changed.
[Laughs] Ah, the fish.
It’s noteworthy because the slow-motion continues, and the score is still perched at that high level of drama.
Happy and serious.
Yeah, and it’s almost as if the audience can, or might, “trip on the fish” too.
These moments are what make filmmaking fun and interesting. It wasn’t actually in the script, but when I was making the storyboards, I thought of this idea I mentioned before—a primitive aspect, like tribes in Africa, a ritual before battle to intimidate their enemies. Putting blood on their faces and whatnot. So I came up with this idea of the fish, but I also wanted to bring it back somehow, because it was such a cool concept. We decided to have Chris slip on it. It’s a bit of a strange moment but very natural for me, and Chris took to it immediately. He sort of laughed and said: “We’re doing all this cool action—you want me to slip on a fish? Why not?” We shot it very quickly.
Another similar moment is when the front-section club kid with the angel-wing costume is crushed by giant gears.
It’s a bit grotesque, and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a chicken slaughterhouse, but you see and hear similar things—even the sound effects of the crunching sound as the feathers are being drawn in. Kind of gross, but I like it. In a way, you’ve picked up on all these images I really favor but a lot of people hate. A portion of the audience. Some. [Laughs]
Those things are what makes the work stand out. They’re tonally polyphonic, combining many different genres and approaches to genre.
Whether it’s a genre or a certain emotion, the effort of maintaining the same tone is foreign and weird to me. I don’t get it. The mixture of all these different things is more like life. I think keeping the same tone throughout is the wrong approach.
When you’re structuring the movie, are you conscious of varying the tonalities from scene to scene?
The bartender over there [in the hotel] mixing cocktails knows what the ingredients are, what the ratios are—they’re making it in a specific way to get the intended result. I’m not like that when I write or when I do the storyboards. It’s only afterward that I notice: “Oh, I’m doing this again.” But it’s not an intentional or conscious effort.
I think what can sometimes disturb audiences about mixing genres or having a lack of consistency in tone is that they’re not being given signposts. Some people actually want, to a certain extent, not only an experience but also to be told how to feel about that experience. Which is more limiting.
I see your point. With my films, sometimes people don’t know whether to laugh or whether it’s a serious scene, and they’ll ask me: “Was it supposed to be funny?” It’s awkward for the audience, though a lot of people do like that about the films. It’s often hard for the marketing team to figure out how to market the film. But it’s inevitable, it’s my tendency, and I feel bad for the people trying to help my film. But I don’t think it’ll change anytime soon.
It’s at the heart of your work and, at times, it’s almost as if a multitude of traditional narrative arcs from different genres have been thrown together and are fighting one another. What can be pleasurably odd (or for some people hard) is the way these moments make sense as they're happening—the fish, or the angel wings, or Alison Pill’s pregnant character firing an Uzi—and then when it’s over, you’re left with something violent or unpleasant. And because of the humor, you question those moments a little bit more, question characters’ motivations and the morality of their actions.
I appreciate the fact that you’re saying it all ultimately makes sense. While making the film, I don’t worry about whether people will get it. But being Korean and living in Korea, it’s a unique society. There’s an expression that describes the Korean mentality: not everything is logical, or not everything makes sense on the surface, but if you look carefully you can get an idea of what’s there. It’s hard to express but this is a very Korean thing.
Do you keep returning to social allegories because you’re trying to express this feeling that’s in Korean society?
I think Snowpiercer is a bit of a different case. I have social commentary in all my films, but because here it’s in the context of sci-fi, it’s more direct and open and the ideas are about capitalism, which is relatable to people from many countries, not just Korea.
This sense of a capitalistic system where there’s no moral direction whatsoever is incredibly palpable in the movie, almost to the point where it could be off-putting, which is the reason it’s so welcome in an action picture, a work of spectacle.
Ultimately, this is a sci-fi action film on a train, and that’s what I wanted. But I wanted to create action that was unique and different from what you see in standard Hollywood fare. Just in terms of the physical space, the action sequences take place in the long and narrow environment of a moving train, and characters are having head-on collisions with each other, and I wanted to work a lot with that, the torch scene being one example. The political message comes afterwards, when you’re falling asleep at night or think about it for a few seconds—that’s enough. The film is about experiencing this unique setting of the train and enjoying the thrilling action, the cinematic tension.
My experience was that the commentary—that sense of the exploitation and degradation of the lower classes by an upper class that doesn’t care and feeds on the exploitation and degradation—was inextricable from the excitement of the action sequences and the claustrophobia of the entire film.
For example, Ed Harris closes the trap door with the little kid inside of the machinery and says very nonchalantly: “Oh, it can only fit children under 5, blah, blah, blah.” It’s a terrifying moment but it’s something that happens. In Bangladesh when they decommission large ships and break them up for parts, a full-grown adult can’t fit inside, so they use small kids who are under 7 and they work for very little money—it’s very dangerous. If you watch National Geographic, you see this. So in fact it’s not science fiction, it’s something that’s actually happening, which is quite sad.
The character actors you cast in the movie are uniformly striking and play well off each other: Paul Lazar, Clark Middleton, Vlad Ivanov, Tómas Lemarquis.
Thank you for mentioning these actors. Paul Lazar is someone I worked with on The Host and is a friend of mine now. I saw him in Jonathan Demme’s films and was struck by his unique voice and individuality, and the character of Paul in Snowpiercer was written for him. In the case of Clark Middleton, he was a recommendation from the casting director. He was in a Tarantino film and Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, where he appears briefly but very memorably. I liked his physicality as well, because the idea of his character, the Painter, is that when the rebels are fighting the soldiers, he records it, he’s drawing. I wanted somebody who would be different from the rest of the rebels, who would just record through his drawings.
Vlad Ivanov plays a key role in the film, even though he doesn’t have any dialogue, the “killer on the train,” if you will. If you talk about insanity and how people are crazy in this world, he’s the epitome of that. He works with Cristian Mungiu and was the abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Casting him was a contribution from one of the producers… It was his idea [gestures at translator]. Tómas Lemarquis was the star of an Icelandic film called Noi the Albino and was very memorable in that, and when I was thinking about the character of Egg-Head, I thought of Tómas because his head is actually the shape of an egg. Without any makeup or need for wardrobe, he has such a unique look that I knew he would be perfect.
The design of the compartments not only corresponds to their purpose on the train but also their place in the narrative. The different shapes and sizes of the compartments determine the pacing of the scenes. The cramped compartments in the beginning make the dialogue heated and pressured, whereas in Wilford’s space it allows for his long monologues and I’m wondering about that conceptual aspect.
Even during the writing of the script, I had to think about the space and locations of the train, how the cars are divided and which car comes after another, because it’s so directly linked to the narrative. I worked intimately with my three concept artists, and this was a case where you couldn’t separate the space from what happens in the narrative—it’s all intertwined.
There’s also the idea of different generations on the train. Curtis [Chris Evans], Gilliam [John Hurt], and even Nam [Kang-ho Song], they were born on Earth and lived on Earth and then boarded the train. So they often talk about the outside world—saying that there’s dirt under the snow, for example, or John looking out at the train station and saying “Still cold.” But Yona [Nam's daughter] or Tim [the son of Octavia Spenser's character], they don’t know what that world was like. They were born on a moving train and, for example, when Yona’s pulled out of that small drawer [in the morgue-like prison car], she’s so used to these cramped spaces that it’s like she’s waking up in her bedroom. So the characters too are intimately linked to the space.