He has been referred to as Korea's version of Quentin Tarantino, with Quentin Tarantino himself recently likening him to
The film is the most expensive South Korean production ever, with a budget of more than $40 million, and broke box-office records when it was released there last year. The film has also weathered a high-profile behind-the-scenes tussle with American distributor the
Having first garnered acclaim on the international festival circuit with 2003's humor-laced serial killer procedural "Memories of Murder," Bong really broke through with 2006's environmental-themed monster horror movie
"I feel I'm a genre filmmaker in Asia," said Bong of how he envisions himself. "I love the conventions of genre cinema, and I also love to destroy those conventions, to create my own unique genres within the genres."
In "Snowpiercer" a failed global attempt to slow climate change by tampering with the Earth's atmosphere leads to a new Ice Age, rendering the world an uninhabitable wasteland. An industrialist who designed a supertrain that travels an interconnected series of tracks spanning the globe has herded the planet's survivors onboard. The poor masses are in the back in squalor, while the elites live in unfettered luxury at the front. After 17 years, a leader emerges from the back, starting a charge forward car-to-car toward the engine.
Based on the French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige" and with a screenplay written by Bong and American writer Kelly Masterson, the film is an international production both in front of and behind the camera, with a cast featuring North American and British performers
"We all live in the cinema republic," said Bong of the film's multinational team earlier this month on the morning of the film's U.S. premiere as the opening selection of the
The film comes on the heels of last year's English-language debuts by two other top South Korean directors. Both Kim Jee-woon's
"Whether you call this his Western or Hollywood debut, I think it's not an apt description of what this is. It's very much a Bong Joon-ho movie," said Tom Quinn, co-president of Radius-TWC, the boutique label of the Weinstein Co. releasing the film. When the film opens in 10 markets on June 27 it will purposely be going head-to-head with the latest
Reviews have largely agreed that the film is pure Bong, with the international genre website Twitch hailing it as a "visionary new work … a demented and stunning thrillride." Variety called the film "enormously ambitious, visually stunning and richly satisfying" while adding it is also "a surprisingly thoughtful contemplation of man's inhumanity to his fellow man, and whether mankind is worth trying to save at all."
Bong first came across the graphic novel in 2005 in Seoul, where he lives, and was immediately struck by how cinematic the idea of moving car to car in the train would be. "The structure of the train was the structure of the narrative," he said. After writing a draft of his own, he reached out to Masterson, screenwriter of
Swinton's character, known as Mason, was written as a man, a functionary and enforcer of the status quo. The actress and Bong had been looking to work together, and so he proposed to her that she play Mason. The script was never changed, so throughout the film Swinton's character is referred to by male pronouns or as "Mister."
"She is familiar to me, he or she or whatever, she's really a collage of every maniacal, dictator-stroke-coward, self-publicizing, mouthing plutocrat you've ever seen," Swinton said.
Some 24 separate train cars were created for the production, including an aquarium, a greenhouse, a nightclub and an elaborate engine car. With the film's sprawling and diverse cast, scheduling became key, as catching Chris Evans in particular around his duties as Captain America in the "Avengers" franchise took some doing. (Bong noted how in the post-credits scene in
Though Bong has a laid-back and friendly manner, he also obviously has a well of intensity, as he faced a showdown with the formidable Weinstein Co. and won.
"The results are important. It's been a complicated process to get here," he said, speaking in both English and Korean. However, he diplomatically added, "That word 'battle' is probably not the right word. It was a collaborative effort."
Added Radius' Quinn, "We are releasing director Bong's cut, and we are releasing exactly what he wants us to release."
Though Bong said he has been sent numerous potential blockbuster and franchise pictures to direct, none has spoken to him as clearly as his own projects. For now he is working on two scripts of his own, one set entirely in Korea and one half in Korea, half in the U.S.
With "Snowpiercer" Bong has continued his genre cross-pollinations, making a politically minded action movie that deals with real-world issues in a fantastic setting on a scale that is both personal and epic.