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March 6, 2007

Director Bong Joon-ho and his monster invade Chicago

I entered a room that was crawling with members of the press—well, just three members, myself included. As we sat and waited, the other two tried quizzing me on my knowledge of monster films, and we all agreed that Bong Joon-ho’s newest monster film The Host was a very unique one. For those of you who don’t know, The Host is the highest grossing Korean film of all time. Much of the film’s charm lies in the unique approaches it takes to the monster movie genre. It was with this in mind that I started my conversation with Bong Joon-ho.

Chicago Maroon: You’ve never made a monster film before. What inspired you to make one while at the top of your game?

Bong Joon-ho: The Host is the film I have always wanted to make. When I was a kid growing up near the Han River, I could just imagine a Loch Ness creature living there. I would enjoy picturing this creature rising out of the water and attacking the passersby. When I told my closest friends that I wanted to make this movie after two more conventional drama films, they told me I was crazy, but after two very critically and financially successful films I decided to take the risk.

Q: You have taken several departures from a lot of monster movie conventions. For instance, you broke the golden rule and showed the monster in the first 10 seconds. Why?

A: I really hate that convention, and it’s a terrible rule to follow since it creates an uninteresting film experience. So I intentionally broke it. The unique narrative structure also requires the audience to focus in on the family and political satire that was the true focus of the film, and not the creature. I wanted the point of view to be the people directly affected in a very quick and blunt manner, like a real disaster.

CM: Why did you decide to focus on the family dynamic instead of the military vs. monster dynamic that is typical of the genre?

BJ: It was my intention to create not just a monster movie but a realistic one that allowed me to tell a story not just of this quirky family but also allow for some subtle political satire. In real life, when you have a calamity like a car accident, you turn to your family and friends, the ones closest to you. We cannot predict when these terrible things happen. It’s also partly a cultural thing. Koreans rely on their families more than their government.

CM: There [were] a lot of satirical elements in the film, especially regarding the government. Why include this in a monster film?

BJ: For me it is the tradition of the monster film or sci-fi movie to include very blunt and in-your-face satire. Godzilla was about nuclear warfare, Alien was about, among other things, uncompassionate capitalism, so the tradition was there. Also, the movie is based on a real environmental catastrophe. The U.S. army did dump formaldehyde into the Han River. It did not create a real monster, but it created many subtle ones and that just allowed for a natural satire of America. There is a lot of political satire for Koreans since the system fails the family, as it so often fails many families in real life.

CM: Will this atypical monster movie play to America, especially with the critiques of America in the film?

BJ: I’m wondering the same. My country does not have a tradition of monster films like Japan does, and the unconventional nature of the film is quite different than what America is used to. I’ve gotten favorable reviews in a lot of other countries. Internationally, the box office has been receptive. We are the most successful Korean film internationally.

CM: Which directors within the genre influenced you?

BJ: I’m not sure if there is a difference between being influenced by their technique or merely liking their films and really appreciating their work. There are movies I like and directors I like, but I would not say they influence me. That said, I’m sure everyone is a Hitchcock fan, myself included. His films are brilliantly suspenseful but not gory, and that is true cinematic expression. Likewise, in The Host I did not want it to be gory. I wanted the suspense to be natural and not artificial. There is no suspense in gore. Asian extremist fans might be disappointed at the lack of gore, but I think overall it is more suspenseful that way.

CM: What got you into filmmaking?

BJ: There was no “A-ha, I want to be a director!” moment, but I did spend a lot of time in my childhood watching both Western and Asian cinema on television. Rage of Fear was the first movie that made me think, “Wow!” I could not leave my seat even to go to the bathroom I was so into it. It taught me that movies could have a powerful visceral effect on people and even a physical one.

CM: Who would win in a fight, Godzilla or the Host creature?

A: I am sure the Host creature would get its ass kicked. It’s only the size of an elephant, and Godzilla depending on the given moment can be anywhere from 10 to 60 stories tall. I don’t think it would have a chance against Godzilla. Maybe the alien from Aliens or Predator. In fact maybe that could be my next movie. I would love to see the host attack the Little Miss Sunshine family. That would be a fairer fight, since that family could pull together in the face of any calamity, even a terrible monster.

And on that note we thanked Bong Joon-Ho for having us and left the building, continuing the Little Miss Sunshine vs. Host monster discussion on the way out.