It’s high praise indeed when Quentin Tarantino says that he changed his plans so that he could meet a fellow director. But that’s what happened during the recent Busan International Film Festival, when Tarantino flew from Macau to South Korea to meet Bong Joon-ho. Unable to hide his fanboy feelings, Tarantino said: “Bong has that thing that’s like 1970s Spielberg – he can do many different types of stories but there is always this comedy and entertainment there.”
The 44-year-old Bong has been at the forefront of South Korean cinema since he made the highly acclaimed serial-killer drama Memories of Murder in 2003. His next film debuted at Cannes in 2006, the brilliantly surreal social satire The Host, in which a sea-monster kidnaps a snack bar proprietor's daughter. It remains the highest-grossing film in South Korea of all time. His 2009 effort Mother was a cautionary tale of the lengths a mother will go to protect her son.
His latest, Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and the Joon-ho regular Song Kang-ho, is his first film to be made in English.
It was the burgeoning status of the director that persuaded Swinton to postpone her plans to take a hiatus from cinema. They met in Cannes in 2011, where Joon-ho was on the jury. Swinton recalls: “I told him at that time I didn’t want to make more films, which was true, I was tired and wanted to lie down for a decade, but I said if it was you and it can be fun, then we can work something out.”
It's more than fun. Bong adapted the 1980s French comic called Le Transperceneige, a post-apocalyptic tale about class warfare set on a train. Human life has been devastated by a new Ice Age and the train carries the last humans. In a cutting analogy of class structures in society, the dregs of society are housed at the back of the train and live in squalor, while those at the front of the vehicle live in grandeur. The action starts when Curtis (Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell) and a one-armed elder named Gilliam (Hurt) plot a revolution.
Swinton plays the cold-hearted dictator Mason and says that her character is based on numerous dictators: “Leaders … are very often tolerated because they are clowns,” she says. “There is a part of us that wants to keep them there because they are clowns – it’s all very sick.”
Hurt was excited by the fact that the sci-fi adventure deals head-on with big human problems. “The problem is the size of the population,” he says. “I don’t know of a humane way of keeping population under control. Is saying that pessimism or realism?”
One of Bong’s big challenges was adapting the story to fit the constraints of cinema. “The original graphic novel was very long, and I had to capture that long story in a two-hour film, so rather than cut out some scenes from the comic, I just rewrote the whole story to fit this time frame,” he says.
Yet, even these efforts were not enough for the film’s producer, the Hollywood honcho Harvey Weinstein. Bong used the Korean premiere of the film to complain. “In English-speaking territories, the distribution rights have been taken by The Weinstein Company and they have final editing rights. Audiences in these English-speaking rights will see a different cut of the film.”
But no matter what version is seen, it’s hard to argue with Swinton’s astute assessment: “The film is an allegory. Like all great work, it’s about something very simple – it’s about life, living, it’s about survival. It’s day after day, carriage after carriage, battle after battle, people get left behind and we go on, but eventually we all leave the train.”
• Snowpiercer is out today in UAE cinemas