In 2013, three of South Korea’s most famous and influential directors went to work for Hollywood. Park Chan-wook made the stylized Gothic thriller Stoker at Fox, Kim Jee-woon went to Lionsgate for the Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot-’em-up The Last Stand, and, in the most publicized instance of them all, Bong Joon-ho teamed up with The Weinstein Company for his sci-fi graphic novel adaptation Snowpiercer. They were all in for a shock; treated as royalty in their homeland, the trio suddenly found themselves displaced from the top of the pecking order, losing status in the studio hierarchy to the executives and the money men.
The following year, Bong later joked, the three would get together and, over drinks and DVDs, try to outdo each other with their horror stories of creative interference. You’d think that Bong would win that contest easily: after a public spat with Harvey Weinstein over its structure and running time, Snowpiercer was sidelined to TWC’s indie offshoot Radius and remains unreleased in some European territories, even as it grossed almost all of its $86 million + overseas. But, surprisingly, Bong thinks he fared the best of them all; unlike Park and Kim, the director retained full control of his work. “I was very lucky,” he grins. “It was a limited release, but it was my own, director’s final cut.”
Other directors might have been fazed by the experience, but not Bong. His follow-up film, the Cannes competition entry Okja that premieres tomorrow, is an equally ambitious flight of fancy, filmed in two languages, spanning two continents and featuring a huge, digitally created creature, named as per the title of the film, that lives peacefully in the Korean wilds—until danger looms. It’s a cryptic title, so what does Okja mean? “Actually, it has no meaning,” Bong explains when we meet in a Santa Monica hotel room a few weeks before the festival begins. “It is a female name in Korea, but it’s a little outdated. Not many kids have that name now. It’s like Margaret. The movie is about an animal called Okja, and also a girl named Mija who looks after Okja—it’s the story about this girl and their relationship.”
Much like Snowpiercer, Okja is a yarn filled with peculiar characters; that film’s glorious villainess, Tilda Swinton, returns to play Okja’s nemesis—the scheming businesswomen Lucy Mirando, who wants to take Okja back with her to the States—while Jake Gyllenhaal, playing the charismatic host of a TV wildlife show, and Paul Dano round out a quirky English-speaking cast. The part of Mija, who plans to kidnap the creature and send it home, is played by rising star An Seo-hyun.
“The story lent itself to this type of mix of cast,” says Bong, “because it’s a story about a girl traveling from the mountains of South Korea to New York City.”
Bong, now 47, says that idea for Okja has been with him for several years and that the inspiration struck shortly after making the Hitchcockian thriller Mother, which graced Cannes’s Un Certain Regard section in 2009. “The first image came to me when I imagined this very large animal,” he recalls. “This was in 2010. I was driving in Seoul, and I imagined an animal that was even bigger than an elephant in the middle of the city—like, in the road—and instead of this animal being very ferocious, it was large but very shy and introverted.”
On a superficial level, it seems very reminiscent of Bong’s breakout hit The Host, which debuted in Directors’ Fortnight in 2006. “Of course,” says Bong. “The Host has a creature and so does Okja, so there’s a similar quality in that aspect, but in every other way Okja and The Host are very, very different. Most significantly, it’s because Okja is actually a love story and that’s the emotional center of the entire film. It’s my very first love story, but it’s not a boy-meets-girl type of love story, it’s about the love that is shared between an animal and a person.”
Typically for a Bong Joon-ho movie, Okja comes with its own strand of deadpan comedy, and to help him write the script he contacted Jon Ronson, the British journalist and screenwriter of the 2014 film Frank—a road movie about a neurotic would-be indie-pop star (Michael Fassbender) who hides under a huge papier-mâché head. “I’m very fond of Frank,” says Bong, “in terms of its unique tone and mood, and the dialogue I found funny and also sad at the same time. I was fascinated with that, and so I reached out to Jon. Of course, I wrote the first draft, and the story—the narrative—is all mine. For the English-speaking characters, played by Tilda and Jake and Paul, in terms of fleshing out those parts and working on the dialogue, Jon played a big part in that, because my English is quite limited. The Korean dialogue and characters is mostly me. But I really enjoyed working with Jon, because he has a unique sense of humor.”
It was this script that Bong began shopping around the studios. “The basic cast was in place, and the VFX company was already attached,” he explains, “but because the story is quite unique, the traditional studios had a few elements that made them hesitate.” Enter streaming giant Netflix, who gave Bong carte blanche to make the film exactly as he saw it. “Netflix, from the very get-go, was very passionate about the project,” he says, “and very excited and supportive. That was also the point at which [Brad Pitt’s company] Plan B joined the process.”
Was Bong keen to protect his independence after the dispute with Harvey Weinstein? The director continues to downplay the incident (“It’s a long story,” he apologizes), but it’s clear that he wasn’t about to walk into the same situation twice. “The script was already locked when it was presented to Netflix,” he explains. “They were 100 percent supportive of what I was trying to do. They supported my vision, and for that I feel very grateful. I feel very fortunate to have met Netflix on this, because it’s not a small movie, it’s not a small-budgeted film, and there’s really no process of me having to keep explaining myself. It was just, from the very beginning, a very supportive environment that I found myself in.”
For a director with such a firm will and strong sense of ambition, Bong is a surprisingly modest man; a warm and friendly presence. Asked if he is familiar with the word “disruption”, he draws a blank. Would he consider himself a disruptor—someone who doesn’t play by the rules? “Me?” he asks softly. “In real life? Well, maybe not consciously, but when I look back on my experiences in film, the results kind of maybe signify that perhaps I am. But it’s not something I set out to do.”
Bong says the same about his filmmaking style—in the 17 years since his tonally awkward debut film Barking Dogs Never Bite (“Please forget it,” he laughs), Bong has moved effortlessly between genres, never following each film with more of the same. “It’s not so much that I’m obsessed with not repeating myself or doing things differently,” he reasons. “It’s because I’m a filmmaker who generates his own ideas and develops his own products rather than being offered something by a studio or producer. It takes a lot of time and energy to create a film, and so it always has to be something fresh or new to sustain my interest.”
Okja is Bong’s first film in Competition—“which is exciting,” he says. “At the same time, it makes me nervous. I just want to enjoy it.” Nevertheless, he’s already starting to think about his next move(s). First up is a small Korean-language film, which he thinks he might follow with something more ambitious. “Not big, but there’s an entirely English-language project that I’m thinking about right now.”
He admits that it can be hard for him to switch off once the muse takes him. “I have to write,” he laughs. “Sometimes my laptop is open, but I’m not actually working. My brain is the sort where I’m always occupied with thoughts of the next project. It just takes a long time to get there.”
Will it be another genre film? He points to his producer, Choi Doo-ho, who has been doubling up as his translator for the morning. “He is the producer,” says Bong. “Right now, we cannot define which genre, but it is a crazy story.”
So what’s it like being a producer for a director like Bong, an artist blessed with such a vivid and restless imagination?
“Oh, it’s a dream,” smiles Choi. “It’s a dream.”
“Be honest,” laughs Bong.
“Well, I mean, it is horrible,” says Choi, “in the fact that he wants to do something that’s kind of nuts. But it’s a challenge. He’s a nice guy to be around, so even though it’s really difficult, there’s always joy involved, every step of the way. And after it’s all done and you look back, you realize what a crazy accomplishment you’ve made. I couldn’t think of a better director to be working with.”