The Official DC Asian Pacific American Film Blog

Thursday, March 08, 2007

'Host' director Bong Joon-ho visits DC

March 1, Washington--For someone whose career is built around movies, it's no surprise Korean director Bong Joon-ho's first impression of the Lincoln Memorial evokes memories of Tim Burton.

"The size of it was impressive but at the same time it reminded me of the last scene of 'Planet of the Apes'," he said, referring to the movie's end when a monument to Ape General Thade has replaced Lincoln's throne.

Bong's first visit to Washington D.C. is full of these discovery moments, he says, as he strolls down Pennsylvania Avenue, for a prime view of the White House.

"It's a bit surreal having seen it so many times, but just in the backdrop of news," he says of the president’s residence, while pausing to snap a photo with his digital camera.

The 41-year-old director is in DC on this particular day as part of a multi-city U.S. tour to promote his latest film “The Host”, which became the number-one grossing film of all time in Korea following its release last summer.

The director is an unassuming guy in person, dressed casually in a dark-colored canvas jacket and black tennis shoes when we first meet. Of medium to average height, he wears glasses, and sports a wavy crop of hair.

Were it not for the shiny black SUV he had stepped out of at the corner of Pennsylvania and 17th, accompanied by several reps from his agency, and his translator, who is crucial to our exchange, he would appear to be any other tourist from Korea.

The Seoul native, who counts Jonathan Demme and Korean director Kim Ki Young as some of his favorite directors, knew he wanted to be a filmmaker since the end of junior high school. His first two films, the quirky but dark Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), and Memories of a Murder (2003), a thriller based on a true story of a serial killer in 1980’s rural Korea, were both received with critical acclaim, the latter even picking up the Best Picture, Director and Actor prizes at Korea’s 2003 Grand Bell Awards.

The Host, a $12 million dollar production, is Bong’s first big-budget movie. Its central premise is of a monster from the Han River who terrorizes the people of Seoul, its special effects delivered by a company in San Francisco. The movie sold just under 13 million tickets upon its release, outstripping Korea’s best-selling movie up to that point, The King and the Clown.

In a Hollywood ending to the movie’s wave of popularity with audiences, Universal Studios has even bought the remakes to The Host.

The Yonsei grad describes this latest development as a “weird feeling”, and has some strong thoughts about the film industry.

“If you look at Hollywood, there’s no doubt it’s the leading industry in film, but they do lots of remakes of classics, of foreign movies. They’re hitting the limit with sequels so they’re going to prequels. I wonder, where are they going to go after that?”

I ask the big fan of Japanese manga and French cinema what the last good movie he saw in theaters was.

“Borat”, he says, deadpan, before breaking into a grin.

But maybe there’s some underlying truth there. After all, just as that movie about a fictional Kazakhstani journalist exposes some fundamental truths about everyday Americans, “The Host” has often been referred to as a very political film, with some critics even proclaiming it anti-American.

"It's within the tradition of monster sci-fi genre to have political commentary, a type of satire," he says. "In a way (the central characters) are fighting two monsters--the actual creature and the system that is ignoring them."

For ideas, he says he picks up inspiration for his films from snippets of conversation he overhears between people, or by witnessing their everyday behavior.

Maybe it’s the cues he finds in unexpected places that cause him to habitually saunter away when he’s finished answering a question during our interview, as I’m left scribbling away on my notepad. He has a habit of wandering, observing the action from a distance, as when he checks out other tourists, or aims his camera at the snipers keeping watch from the roof of the White House.

A directorial, or personal habit? Who knows. Or maybe he was just bored.

It’s clear anyhow that Bong doesn’t always need to be the center of attention, though his entourage wastes not a moment’s second whipping out umbrellas to cover our heads when the dark sky finally opens and the raindrops descend.

Is sudden fame something he’s embraced?

"Rather than being famous, I'm waiting for the cinematic awakening where I can write a script quickly, easily," he says, with a grin. "I'm waiting for that day."

His outlook of the future of Korean cinema is hopeful, but cautionary. “I hope it doesn’t go the way of the Hong Kong film industry—which had a huge renaissance and died away,” he said.

“I think we need to keep striving for the new—the new idea, new emotion, styles, new ways of telling the narrative,” he continues. “It’s risky, but domestic audiences need to support it by watching the unfamiliar or to say, ‘there’s something cool in this’.

The sky growing darker by the minute, Bong has to hurry back to his waiting car, which will deliver him to the airport, en route to Chicago, the next stop on his U.S. tour.

But not without these parting words does he take off: “We need to keep striving for the new, the inventive. If you’re not, you’ll find the industry in a crisis.”

And with that, his entourage all piled in, the vehicle zooms off, in the direction of the monuments of the nation’s capital, on this drizzly night.


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