The Host/Interview with Bong Joon Ho
Little Miss Sunshine and
Alien mixed together and you'll have an inkling of what South Korea's
The Host (opening March 9 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) has in store for you. The film's been a top grosser in its native Korea where it's been beating out the bigger budgeted Hollywood fare with ease.
The best way to see The Host is to know nothing about it so that it can surprise you. So let me say as little as possible about the story. The film does focus on a family of what director Bong Joon Ho calls "losers" who try to cope with the problems of everyday life. Complicating matters for them, and the rest of the country, is the sudden appearance of a mutant creature in the Han River. Okay, that's all I have to say about the plot.
Song Kang-ho (the star of JSA, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Memories of Murder and The Foul King) plays the hapless father who ends up with a central role in Korea's attempt to contain the creature. Song displays amazing range, taking on a role that's very different from the strong characters he's played in the past. But his narcoleptic slacker ends up being the surprising anchor of the story.
Director Boon Joon Ho ( Memories of Murder ) mixes elements of broad comedy, serious family drama and popcorn monster movie to deliver a highly entertaining tale laced with biting social commentary. Boon throws just about everything in and there's an occasional unevenness, but overall the film pulls off everything it sets out to tackle.
Boon took time during his promotional tour to speak with me by phone about his film.
Song Kang-ho in The Host
BETH ACCOMANDO: There was a real event in which an American officer at a U.S. facility in Seoul ordered a Korean to dump chemicals into the Han River. Did this influence you or play a role in the making of the film?
BONG JOON HO: When I was in high school I was thinking what a great film it would be to have a creature come out of the Han River. It was a little bit of a weird idea at the time but it stayed with me. And in February 2000, there was the famous McFarland case where 400 plus bottles of formaldehyde were poured into the Han River and the order was given by an American officer [who has since been tried in Korean court and found guilty in absentia]. It was quite shocking and the whole society was in an uproar. But for someone who is preparing to shoot a film about a creature coming out of the Han River and to have this sort of event happen is shocking but at the same time it excited me and I knew right away this was the way I was going to start my film, this was going to be the starting point.
BA: The monster is described as the host to a possible virus, can you also look at Korea as playing host to the U.S. and the U.S. being a viral presence?
BJH: Yes I think that is a possible interpretation. If you look up host in the dictionary there are various meanings. One is as you just said in terms of the virus. A host is the opposite of the word of parasite. But if you were to expand on that here in the film, the central focal point of the film is the protagonists family. This loser family. Whatever is tormenting this family, that is making life hard for them or oppressing them, you could say that whoever, whatevers not helping them on the whole--its a host of all those things. It could be the creature itself, it could be the system that doesnt help this family, Korean society, America, a wide spectrum of meaning for the host.
BA: The plays very well as an entertaining monster movie but it also has a social commentary. What do you like about mixing those elements?
BJH: When you say mixing together it could almost be heard as these things are so different elements or different from each other but just like you mix all these different ingredients and toppings to make a very tasty pizza. I feel that a film needs to be that way too. So instead of distinguishing between these things it could be like an exciting monster movie and at the same time have political comments and satire. And for that to work I believe you need something as a focus point and like I said before its the family. This family fighting against the monster, being repressed and tormented by the state and society, the thing that ties everything together is the family.
BA: So would he feel more comfortable describing it as a family drama that just happens to have a monster in it as opposed to a monster movie involving a family?
BJH: Exacty. Exactly as you said.
BA: This was a top grossing film in Korea. How do you think it will do in America? Will there be any cultural differences?
BJH: The American market is quite broad and they have large audiences but in terms of subtitled or foreign films they are just not as popular and I know that this film is going to be one of those foreign films so I would love for it to be one of the first steps for getting garnering recognition for Korea cinema on a whole. I would like it to expand on that for instance recognizing Korean films as Korean films aside from the sort of Asian film festival sort of thing Id like to bring Korean film to everyday American audiences.
BA: Was this a difficult film to get made considering all the special effects?
BJH: Yes it was difficult in various ways. First the technical aspect of the film when it comes to the tradition of the know how of the technical aspects of visual effects theres not much out there yet therefore Korea doesnt make a lot of visual effects films yet so we did rely on visual effects houses and companies outside of Korea in America, Autralia, and New Zealand. In terms of budgets for Korea its a very big budget film but in terms of the U.S. in terms of a budget for a western visual effects film the budgets very small so there are limitations due to that. Not only that but theres a prejudice against monster genre films. Not only with average audience members but the film industry itself in Korea they look down on the sci-fi or monster movie and they think its like a juvenile kid film, so it was hard fighting against that prejudice.
The Host- A family drama with a monster
BA: What are you most proud of about the film?
BJH: The fact that the creature shows up in the 13th minute of the film.
BA: What about working with Song Kang Ho, he has remarkable range doesn't he?
BJH: Song Gang Ho is an amazing actor he can do a wide spectrum of acting in various genres and he does it all by absorbing Korean reality. But this film because it was a monster type sci-fi film I thought it was even more important to have an actor like Song because its through him that it brings this reality to the film. His acting brings a positive effect on computer graphics in general. This creature created by computer graphics depending on what expression Song Gong has on his face its like the actor acting opposite you you can sort of bring it to a higher level. His acting is so real and with his rich expressions it made the creature feel more real. It was just like amazing acting.
BA: Explain how you wanted the film to look.
BJH: Unlike existing monster movies this is set in the area around the Han River and the Han River is like very every day ordinary. Just like I imagine in San Francisco the Golden Gate bridge must be. So its the shock of seeing a creature come out of such ordinariness. And then you have this family, this poor family of losers they are funny and sad at the same time and quite desperate.
Companion viewing: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, JSA, Memories of Murder, Godzilla (the original 1956 Japanese version recently released in a new box set from Toho)