There’s a scene in the dystopian, post-apocalyptic sci-fi fable “Snowpiercer” that turns the tables on how Western audiences perceive non-English-speaking Asian characters in what is — for all intents and purposes — a Hollywood production.
A Korean engineer (played by Song Kang-ho) is revived from a coma, which happens to be his prison sentence for drug addiction. The engineer can’t speak a word of English, and his revivers — a band of American rebels who desperately need his expertise on getting to the engine room in the front section of the ever-moving Snowpiercer train that houses the last of humanity — can’t utter a word of Korean. With every sign of acute boredom, the Korean engineer points to a translation device hanging on the wall and tells the head rebel (Chris Evans) to put it over his head. This enables the pair to carry out a conversation in their own languages, and one of the first phrases out of the engineer’s mouth, ramming into the ears of the rebel, is, “F-ck off!”
That pretty much sets the tone for the rest of “Snowpiercer,” based on the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige.” The rebels are at the mercy of the Korean, who does things at his own leisurely pace and demands payment in the form of drugs. When he can’t get high, he slumps into a corner and refuses to work, which annoys the rebels to no end. An Asian engineer who does drugs and doesn’t work his butt off? WTF?
This is one of director Bong Joon-ho’s favorite scenes, perhaps because he himself doesn’t speak English and has never been bothered about it. Unlike John Woo or Wong Kar-wai, who were bilingual Asian pioneers blazing trails in the Hollywood sky, Bong says he has never really felt the need to acquire language skills or Western mannerisms.
“I make the movies that I want to see,” he tells The Japan Times. “And there aren’t too many of them, which is why I have to make them myself.”
As for the ethnic power balance on board Snowpiercer, he gives a little laugh. “I thought it would be nice to see something like that,” he says. “But on the other hand, this story is not about minorities or race. It’s about generations and experience.”
Snowpiercer has been circling the globe for 17 years after a climate-change catastrophe that wiped out most of humanity. The remaining survivors are aboard the train, the younger ones known as “train babies” — those who were born and raised inside the cars and have never set foot outside.
“In the movie, mankind is divided not only by the first class and economy class passengers, but those who can remember what it’s like to walk on the ground and feel the sun on their faces, and those whose feet have never touched anything but the train floor, and never breathed the air of the outside world,” says Bong. “I was fascinated by this divide, and wanted to draw a detailed interaction between the two generations.”
Bong had never previously worked outside of his native South Korea, but his reputation as a master storyteller was launched with his debut work “Barking Dogs Never Bite” in 2000. Since then, his name has been lauded on the international film festival circuit, and Roger Ebert once noted that “Memories of Murder” (2003) and “Mother” (2009) were among the most important Asian movies of our time. In Japan, Bong has a solid following among film fans who don’t immediately equate Korean films with Hanryu (Korean wave) stars, with 2006’s “The Host” a notable highlight.
So it comes as little surprise that Bong is now reaching out to a global audience, and he’s part of a trend of Korean filmmakers doing just that. Last year, Park Chan-wook’s “Stoker” boasted Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode in a gorgeously textured Hollywood-style horror. And the Chinese production of “Dangerous Liaisons” that opened in Japan earlier this month was directed by Korea’s Hur Jin-ho and starred renowned Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi.
Bong says that for himself, the move to make “Snowpiercer” wasn’t about getting the big Hollywood break. “I think it’s more about the international cinema industry needing directors with particular genre skills,” he says. “The market is breaking down into compartments, and filmmakers with new methods and their own unique brand of storytelling are in demand right now.
“While I recognize that’s the case, an international career isn’t on my agenda. I do what I do, and if that leads to an international project, like ‘Snowpiercer,’ then that’s great too. But I see no need to go out to Hollywood, or change anything in my filming style.”
That includes going 3-D. “I was asked many times if I wouldn’t prefer the 3-D treatment. And, well, I just said no.”
Bong adds that “Snowpiercer” is a project that occupies a special place in his mind. “I read the original graphic novel at a bookstore, and got really excited by the idea of an entire story taking place inside a train. Inside my head, I could see segments of the action scenes unfolding, and I just had to make the movie. So I made sure the ending wasn’t vague, or open-ended, or anything like that. To me, the story was so important, I wanted to give it a great send-off. Bright, blindingly clear and full of hope.”