ÌïúÍ∞ï, The Han River, just over 500 Kilometers in length, but still one of the most important symbols of Korean development, of its capital Seoul, and all the families living around it. Before they 'redesigned it', the river would often suffer from periodical flooding, with the worst of them killing over 600 people in 1925, damaging a good 17,000 houses. The colonial administration back then estimated that what the river did on the colony's economy was akin to a monster eating nearly one third of the annual budget, which was just over the 200 Million Yen. Nearly 40 years later, the Han became the city's biggest source of gravel and sand for construction, a gigantic mine field to help the economic development in the 60s. It became known as 'The Miracle on the Han River', a little tiger of a nearly-third world country becoming one of the biggest, most important and dynamic economies on the globe. A monster of its own, a monster which helped build most of Seoul between the 60s and mid 80s.
Some dedicated entire books to it, like Jo Jung-Rae's epic novel 한강 (The Han River), some used it as a sort of romantic background for the lives of its character, like Kim Jung-Soo's family Drama 한강수 타령 (Ode to the Han River). Films have always been in love with the place, right from the industry's beginning: in 1925, one of the industry's first pioneers Lee Pil-Woo directed, edited and was DP for The Great Flooding of the Han River), a documentary about the aforementioned 1925 Han River flood; in 1974, the late great Shin Sang-Ok directed Jang Dong-Hwi and his wife Choi Eun-Hee in The Han River, arriving to the 90s and Kim Ki-Duk's debut film Crocodile, which uses the Han River in a philosophically intriguing way. But there was also a little short, shot as part of the Omnibus Twentidentity in 2003 by one of the country's most promising directors.
After nearly a decade of working as Director of Cinematography -- for Jang Joon-Hwan's short 2001 Imagine -- lighting director, script writer -- for two completely different works, Park Gi-Yong's arthouse borefest Motel Cactus and Min Byung-Cheon's entertaining 1999 marine blockbuster Phantom: The Submarine, paired once again with Jang Joon-Hwan -- and even an 'editor on the set' for Ryu Seung-Wan's Die Bad, this young director hit it big with the critics with his debut, 2000's eclectic Barking Dogs Never Bite, and then hitting the entire jackpot (critical and popular) with his 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder. Perhaps a sign of things to come, when he had to choose a short project for this Omnibus he decided to set it near the Han River, with an old man (Byun Hee-Bong) running his junk food business near the banks of the Han River. A nice day a kid (Jung In-Seon) and his father -- theater mainstay Yoon Je-Moon of Antarctic Journal -- approach him with a strange bet: if an egg could stay afloat on the river, the two could eat all the food they wanted for free, otherwise the man would give the old man his daughter. The title of this interesting, bizarre little short was Sink & Rise), his director? Bong Joon-Ho.
Many things sink and rise in the Han River, without people realizing it. But something rising out of the famous river to sink back in is one of the things which led Bong to become a film director. It was 1987, and Bong was in his third year of High School, preparing for the College Entrance exams. Bong, who lived in Chamshil near the river, took a long look out of the window, and he saw what looked like a leg emerging from the river's banks. It was a strange creature, something he had never seen before. Bong was already dreaming of becoming a director, but that event instantly became one of his dream projects. So while The Host might have started a few years ago when it comes to pre-production, it's been in Bong Joon-Ho's mind for over 19 years. The project of a lifetime, his most ambitious, craziest project to date: a monster film, in Korea?
The study of these 'monsters' is mostly followed by Cryptozoology scholars, with sightings everywhere from Lake Manitoba to Patagonia in Argentina, from Lake Tianchi (North Korea) to of course Loch Ness in Scotland. And although science is still very skeptical about these creatures' very own existence -- seeing as no dead bodies have been ever found -- they have been the core of an entire genre, especially in Japan with their kaiju eiga. But in Korea, monster films never really took off, with most recent attempts by former comedian Shim Hyung-Rae falling quite short of anything remotely entertaining -- last in line his 1999 flop Yonggari, unless you believe D-War will release sometime in this Century. Why would a successful director 'waste his time' with a monster film, in a country where the genre barely registered a blip, with most monster films of the past and present relegated to straight to video obscurity? Because of that little thing he saw, which impacted him for life, enough to tell us in the film's Teaser Trailer. When the film was presented in 2004 at the Pusan Promotion Plan, it was still entitled The River, and all we were given was a tail, nothing more. Little did we know that the little monster in Bong's mind would become the most expensive 'supporting role' in Korean Cinema history.
Out of the final 11 Billion Won, a whopping 4 Billion were spent on the monster's design, from textures to animatics, from designing every single body part to finding the right actor for his 'voice' -- which, believe it or not, is Oh Dal-Soo of Forbidden Quest and A Bittersweet Life. It took more than two and a half years to 'cast' the creature, from December 2003 when the first creature sketches were drawn by designer Jang Hee-Cheol, to the finishing touches of CG by Weta and Orphanage in May this year. Bong had to choose between thousands of different sketches, and the creature went through a sort of audition, with chances in the 1500 to 1 range, not exactly the easiest of roles. The first designs Jang brought to the table were a sort of combination between a rat and a fish, but what Bong always stressed was realism, not how scary or big the monster was. Because he didn't want to make a monster film per se, he wanted to use the monster -- or better, the creature -- as a plot device, something carrying a certain meaning for the protagonists of the film: a family, and the Han River itself, with the yin and yang of romantic, poetic beauty mixed with pollution and many dangers hidden behind the corner.
Bong shoot with a documentary feeling right from the first time, hunting locations for months, so much that he wrote the script based on the locations he was finding, to give the river its own personality. This is nothing new for Bong, who went up and down the area outside Seoul to find villages which would help create that 'Hwasung feeling', for Memories of Murder. And behind this 'creature' motif stands the meaning of the English title: this creature is an intermediary carrier, a 'host' for something bigger it's carrying, something which helped it mutate, something someone was responsible for (and spoilers end there). It would have probably been easier for everyone involved to make a King Kong sized monster, or something tall like the 63 Building, in Hollywood style. But Bong wanted something different, something faster, more realistic, something you'd almost believe could come out of the Han River, that is why The Lord of the Rings's Weta Workshop and Orphanage were brought in. It wasn't simply going overboard, wearing on their sleeves the fact two major World powers in the CGI world worked in this film. No, Bong simply wanted the best possible monster. Of course the story and characters were at the center of the film, but without a solid looking creature, everything would collapse, as people's preconceptions about monster films (especially in Korea) would have sunk the entire ship.
The film marked a few illustrious returns, with Bong bringing back most of the staff from Memories of Murder, including DP Kim Hyung-Goo, Lighting Director Lee Gang-San, supremely talented Art Director Ryu Sung-Hee and more. On top of that, just like Park Chan-Wook did with Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, Bong brought back most of the actors who worked with him in the past. Byun Hee-Bong, his very own 'muse', who starred in Barking Dogs Never Bite, Memories of Murder and even Sink & Rise; Song Kang-Ho, Park Hae-Il and Park No-Shik from Memories of Murder; Bae Doo-Na and Go Soo-Hee from Barking Dogs Never Bite, and Kim Roi-Ha who starred in both. Hell, even Im Pil-Sung of Antarctic Journal has a little cameo in the film. Just like many of the most talented directors in Chungmuro, Bong tends to work with his 'family', with people who know his modus operandi, and need no orientation to get into the right mood, which in a way tends to help their performances later, as seen by Bong's past works.
And the real protagonists of this are the members of the Park family, those helpless, often miserable quintet who live near the Han River trying to make a living. They're no superheroes, no single entity saving the nation or the entire world with their might: they only gain strength and courage when the most precious thing they have (the family itself) suffers because of this creature, and courage comes even into the most fragile of them all, daddy Park Gang-Doo. When he started casting for the film, Bong took a strange approach: he tried to find people who wouldn't fit at all with the image of someone who had to fight a creature. There's no secret agents, laser guns and armored tanks. Just ramyeon and other assorted junk food, the Han River, and the family. In short, Bong's biggest talent: taking genre tropes and immersing the whole thing into rivers of smell of people.
The Host was extremely well received at the latest Cannes Film Market, adding 2.3 Million in distribution sales to the original 4.7 by Japan's Happynet (1.2 invested right into the film). This means even before releasing in theaters this July 27, the film will have made back over 2/3 of its budget, and of course there's a big chance more contracts will come its way.
Father, Park Gang-Doo
He's the oldest son in the family, running a little food stall in the Han River Park. His yellowish hair are probably the scariest thing in the entire film except Baby Monster, but despite everything he's a loving father to Hyeon-Seo, his little daughter, the person he would never scold.
The Actor: After a short debut in Hong Sang-Soo's The Day the Pig Fell into The Well and a short but impressive little role in Lee Chang-Dong's Green Fish, Song created a nationwide cult with his fantastic supporting role in the brilliant No. 3. His theater roots came into play in the gangster comedy, in which Song displayed some of the most hilarious and impressive ad-lib ever seen in a Korean film. Soon every comedian on TV was trying to replicate his stuttering, gangster wannabe persona.
Although his role in Kim Jee-woon's cult horror comedy The Quiet Family offered only a slight variation on the previous theme, he slowly started ascending to the throne which would crown him king, The Foul King to be precise, in 2000. Coupled with the success of Park Chan-Wook's Joint Security Area, Song became one of the most sought after actors in the country. If we exclude his few seconds in Jang Sun-Woo's maligned Bad Movie, then Song has yet to star in a bad film: better yet, most of them have their own colour, from baseball comedy YMCA Baseball Team to brilliant political satire The President's Barber; from Park Chan-Wook's superb Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance to last year's incredibly powerful Antarctic Journal. Gang-Doo's yellow hair was Song's idea, and it's been widely reported he re-invested his 500 Million Won cachet into the film. So much about star actors being too greedy...
Director Bong Talks About Gang-Doo: "A pathetic father in front of his daughter, and when dealing with his father he has no discretion whatsoever. How can I describe him... a big child? This was probably Song's most difficult role to date, something he never tried before, without any traditional examples he could look at for inspiration. Someone walking a thin line between the normal and abnormal, but whose feelings and way of dealing with things completely change as the story progresses. Dyeing his hair yellow was Song's idea: this penniless guy tries to dye his hair once, but then as time goes on he never takes care of it, his hair grow and it all turns into a big mess. It felt like someone trying to follow fashion in some way, but not being able to get it right."
Grandfather, Park Hee-Bong
Your classic quick tempered father, having to raise three children alone. His day, other than taking turns with Gang-Doo running the food stall, consists mainly of three things: bitching, complaining, and generally being annoying. But of course that hides a certain warmth of its own, as he loves his family more than anything else in the world.
The Actor: Although he starred in plenty of films during the 80s, Byun mostly made his name on TV, being a regular on the landmark police procedural The Chief. Although his big comeback was marked by Sageuk on TV, with his roles in Im Choong's King of the Wind and the classic Hur Joon, it was exactly Bong Joon-Ho's Barking Dogs Never Bite which allowed him to make a name for himself, for the first time in over a decade. Byun continued alternating between memorable little supporting roles on the big screen -- Volcano High, My Teacher, Mr. Kim, To Catch a Virgin Ghost, Crying Fist and more -- and TV - mostly Sageuk, like Dawn of the Empire, Damo and more -- but it was with Memories of Murder that Byun finally found the popularity he was looking for. When he received the call once again from Director Bong, he couldn't be happier, as his memorable roles in his past films rejuvenated his career. This is probably going to be one of Byun's most important films, as not only he's been praised for his acting (which is not a surprise), but people noted how crucial his role is (which wasn't always the case in the past). He's even wearing special platinum dental prosthetics for the film, that must count for something...
Director Bong Talks About Hee-Bong: "The quintessential Korean father, following Gang-Doo and trying to fix all the little problems he leaves behind. More than his niece Hyun-Seo, he worries a lot more about his son Gang-Doo. Instead of portraying the usual unique character with his own striking personality, this time Byun's character shows a much broader range of sentiments both as a person and father. It gives a In The Name of the Father-like feeling, if you will."
Uncle, Park Nam-Il
He's the only member of the family who went to college, but thanks to his new life as an unemployed man, all he does is swear a storm, complain a lot, and get excited easily.
The Actor: Who would ever think the guy playing the younger version of Lee Eol in Im Soon-Rye's glorious Waikiki Brothers would make it this far? By Jealousy is My Middle Name I was still thinking Park was a little overrated, but Memories of Murder changed it all. Although his choice in projects tends to be a little uneven -- from the really good like Rules of Dating and My Mother, The Mermaid to the questionable like The Scent of Love and downright bad like The Boy Who Went to Heaven -- his acting has improved tenfold since he first worked with Bong. To better portray Nam-Il, Park observed some of his most swear-friendly, easily inflammable acquaintances and learned from them. The role was actually based on one of Director Bong's real life friends.
Director Bong Talks About Nam-Il: "Although he's the only member of the family who went to college for four years, he isn't able to get a job and sort of leads a pathetic existence inside this family, always cursing out other people, whining, a bit grouchy but also cute in a way. The character's model was actually a friend of mine. Park will show a new side of his acting range this time, a really interesting one.
Aunt, Park Nam-Joo
She was an able archer ever since her youth, with enough talent to make it big in the game, but her nerves always let her down in the crucial moments, and were her fatal flaw. Still, she's always confident, and is the type who doesn't give up easily.
The Actor: One of the most interesting and eclectic actresses in the country, Bae's mother was a famous theater actress, so it was only logical she'd somewhat follow on her footsteps. Her beginning was a little shaky, with a few forgettable TV Dramas and her small role in The Ring Virus, but 2000 marked the beginning of her cult status, at least overseas, with Bong Joon-Ho's Barking Dogs Never Bite. That year she also gave a risque performance (albeit with a body double for the more 'intense' scenes) in Kwak Ji-Gyun's Plum Blossom, and slowly started getting more work on TV, in School and Mother, Sister. It was Jung Jae-Eun's wonderful Take Care of My Cat though that gained the most popularity amongst fans, and Bae continued to mix the commercial -- the lovely Saving My Hubby and the stinky blockbuster Tube -- and the... not too much so -- Park Chan-Wook's Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and Yong Yi flawed but interesting Spring Bears Love. From 2003 she took a long hiatus from the big screen, in which she rested, did some theater work, and continued to work on TV -- the disappointing Rosemary and the quite forgettable Country Princess.
This break ended with 2005's Linda Linda Linda, perhaps one of her most memorable roles. She also gave an excellent performance in the Omnibus Drama Six Love Stories, and her next project on TV will be the promising live action/animation hybrid Someday. Although she has a good number of hardcore fans, she's pretty much ignored by the mainstream at home, but of course she enjoys great popularity overseas, at least with fans of Korean Cinema. For the role, she trained in archery for months with a professional player in Suwon, and continued to do so even during shooting whenever she had time. She was told if she really wanted, she had enough talent to make it at an amateur level, so it looks like she worked pretty hard. Another interesting anecdote from the shoot is that she got so emotional shooting a scene where Nam-Joo loses Hyeon-Seo, she ended up throwing up in the toilet afterward. But of course the moment Bong gave the OK, it was everything back to smiles and fooling around. That's Bae Doo-Na.
Director Bong Talks About Nam-Joo: "She's very simple but able to keep her concentration even at the most difficult of times, she carries the traditional character traits of an archer, if you will. She always has a clear goal in mind, and when with her family, despite always remaining silent up to the end, she tends to be the one who makes that final decision. She also has a different relationship with Hyun-Seo, a sort of surrogate mother for her, since she grew up without one."
Gang-Doo's only daughter. She gets abducted by a creature coming out of the Han River, and the whole family falls into a crisis, trying to save her.
The Actor: Still in her first year of Middle School, youngster Go Ah-Sung already showed she has what it takes to become a solid actress in the future, with her little role in last year's Six Love Stories. Expect her to become a sort of female Lee Jae-Eung (who also stars in the film), meaning one of the most sought after child actors in the country.
Director Bong Talks About Hyun-Seo: "She may be youngest of the family, but she's also the wisest and smartest character. Because of her irresponsible father, she had to grow up quicker than most people her age. We worked really hard to find someone who could strip herself of the usual 'child actor' type of performance. Go Ah-Sung, who is the same age as Hyun-Seo, showed really mature acting for her age, and that's one of her defining charms as an actress."
INTERVIEW WITH VISUAL EFFECTS SUPERVISOR KEVIN RAFFERTY
What convinced you to join the film?
Kevin Rafferty: At first when they offered me the project, I didn't really know much about Director Bong Joon-Ho. So I bought and watched Barking Dogs Never Bite and Memories of Murder, and accepted the offer right away. Also, when I took a look at the Animatics and storyboards for the film, I felt really excited. Right now Hollywood films create huge Visual Effects, but they have the tendency not to really make monster films. This film really attracted me because it was made with that kind of excitement, like a real monster film. The moment I saw Jang Hee-Cheol's monster designs, my expectations for this film rose exponentially.
While working on this film, did you look at any other monster film in particular for inspiration?
Rafferty: We used many films as a reference. We looked at the T-Rex in Jurassic Park and how it walked on its two feet, its size and weight; we also looked at Dragonheart to help us look at how big reptilians' skin reacted to raindrops; Predator and Blade 2 helped us understand how to deal with the creature's jaw and the different configurations of its mouth. We also looked at the movement of whales, crocodiles and even monkeys for the creature's movement both in terms of swimming and walking. To see how a fish' skin reacts to fire we even went to the fish market, bought a few trouts, set them on fire and looked at what happened. Oh.. don't worry, they were already dead, we just were preparing to cook them (laughs).
How was working with Director Bong?
Rafferty: I completely accepted his views and suggestions just like he did with mine, that's why everything went so smoothly. When it comes to details, his suggestions were really spot on. I was really confident about that myself, but what he brought to the table was so good that on certain instances we even dropped some of my ideas to focus on his. He's not a difficult person to work with, he just knows very well what he wants.
Was there any difference between working on this film and other Hollywood ones?
Rafferty: When it comes to Post-production, there's very little difference, it's the shoot itself which was quite new for me. In Korea all the staff members show really strong dedication and passion for the project, and it's the same with the actors. Even on days when they had nothing to shoot, they'd come to the set and observe how things were going. And the fact we could edit on the spot while shooting helped a lot when making decisions. This practice is becoming more popular in Hollywood too, but it was my first experience, personally.
INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR BONG JOON-HO
Looking at the Teaser Trailer, you tell how the idea for this film came from a real creature sighting you experience while in High School. Is it true?
Bong Joon-Ho: Oh... because of that I heard plenty of different reactions. Recently I saw an Internet manhwa saying that since I saw a creature for real, I must have started inhaling Bond from high school (laughs). When I was in High School, I lived in in an Apartment complex near Chamshil, and you could see the intersection of Chamshil Bridge from my room's window. I was just a young man, so I'd often blankly stare from my window for a few moments. One day I saw a strange black moving object climb one of the bridge's pillars and then fall in the water, that became the basic idea for this film. That day I promised myself to make a film about this if I became a director, at all costs. I guess seeing a monster in my living environment was really exciting. When I was young I'd often read things like The Seven Wonders of the World. But as I said before, The Host never goes in 'real life story' mode, it's just in 'reality' mode.
The film was praised at Cannes, you must feel really happy.
Bong: Actually the version shown at Cannes wasn't the complete one, so it's true it wasn't really a World Premiere in that sense. Since we don't have to do the editing again, it's still the same 1 Hour 54 Minutes version we showed at Cannes, but we're still in post-production. We're fixing details regarding sound effects and Computer Graphics, but of course I felt really good, despite not being the completed film.
You always seem to try something new with your films. With Barking Dogs Never Bite you created laughter in a way past Korean Films never could, with Memories of Murder you portrayed a real unsolved case, and this time it's a monster movie.
Bong: I was really worried about films dealing with real life subjects back when I was working on Memories of Murder. And when they heard I was making The Host, people I knew were even more worried. Why do you need to make a film about creatures, do you want to leave a stain on your career? I heard a lot of things like that, and people were really prejudiced against it. But I think those preconceptions ended up stimulating me even more, so much I wanted to note down every single name of those who pointed fingers at me, and later tell them: "Here, look at it. I really wanted to show you something." Many people wondered why I did this in the first place (laughs).
So what did you want to say through this film?
Bong: One of my first priorities was making a realistic, true to life creature. As I told you before, when I said I was making a monster film the reaction was really bad (laughs). Then I wanted characters that came alive, who would show their distinctive personalities in fighting with the monster. I also wanted to ask why, despite all their efforts to fight this monster, nobody tried to help them. And then I added another layer, their social situation influencing their lives. But I didn't want this to become too heavy handed. My biggest desire was to make something which could favorably compare with action films in the Summer season in terms of entertainment.
This might be a genre film, but it uses a lot of Hollywood's formulae to get to the point.
Bong: It's true it starts as a genre film, and it uses genre tropes, but I also had a lot of fun trying to break those conventions. And unlike Hollywood films, I don't wait a long time to introduce the monster. I think my boundless affection and fundamental dislike for American genre films coexist inside me.
In your films, the sadistic humour always ends up helping the film's rhythm. You also show the ability of bringing reality to the surface through slapstick comedy.
Bong: I don't think you can just throw slapstick comedy at the screen hoping something will stick. It's just that slapstick comedy sometimes can help with the flow between drama and characters. For instance, throwing some slapstick comedy in the middle of a serious situation is an important factor the director can use to help the flow of the film, in my view.
Did you want people to feel compassion looking at the monster's face?
Bong: Exactly. We decided not to go with it eventually, but towards the middle-final portion of production the face's design was much uglier and even a little funny. The monster's face looked a lot like Steve Buscemi, in some ways. As it could have made things a little too comical we decided to give up on it, but it had a very rustic feel, something like a hyena, very sneaky and mean-spirited.
People who saw the film were surprised that the monster's size was smaller than they expected.
Bong: People look at the 63 Building and expect some kind of gigantic Godzilla thing, but the bigger the monster becomes, the more people would get the tendency to treat this as a film for kids (laughs). So the bigger the monster was, the less realistic it would have been, and more importantly, it wouldn't be able to move as dynamically as this one does, so I wanted to make it small. Then again if it was too big, where would it possibly hide? We had to be able to conceal the monster as much as possible, to decrease the number of scenes he would appear in. I mean, that thing cost 30 Million Won per shot! (laughs). Actually, to show the monster's size at the 2004 PPP, even if I drew the tail people wouldn't know. There's still some people asking me if it's going to crush the National Assembly building (laughs).
Now that Cannes received the film well, don't you feel like you took a big weight off your shoulders?
Bong: I even thought some people reacted like that out of courtesy at first, but when the reviews came out I truly realized they liked the film. But on the other hand, all this positive word of mouth and how it influences viewers at home is a little burdensome too. I'm scared people will run into the film with extremely high expectations, and then feel nothing particularly special while watching it.
- [Lee Sang-Yong, Film2.0]
"You could say the real monster here is Bong Joon-Ho's film itself, blending the familiar image of monsters in Hollywood films with the intricacies of Korean society. Showing the collapse and union of a family is certainly a traditional story, but it never feels like a Hollywood film. And that's because this is Bong Joon-Ho's twisted portrait of today's Korean Society, and the kind of world he showed since Barking Dogs Never Bite. The image of the monster is very vividly portrayed, but the film never lets go of the scariest thing, that of the monster's shape and forms we create inside our minds. The real forces creating this monster, this 'host' carrying all those acts are indeed a country's power and system themselves. But it's not one of those heavy handed films, as it never lets go of its unique humour, dealing with tragic situations with a smile on the face. That's a sign of a director with remarkable skills."
- [Choi Kwang-Hee, Film2.0]
"Just as people were saying, it's even better than expected, a true tour de force. The drama's tight suspense combines with well timed humour giving a fresh new flavour, just like polished directing perfectly meets with advanced production values. Finally a mainstream film that's both entertaining and has a strong, unique meaning has come out. Just like what he did in Memories of Murder, Bong has effectively combined genre tropes with a calm but at the same time passionate social commentary, proving once again what a master filmmaker he is. The ensemble featuring Byun Hee-Bong, Song Kang-Ho, Park Hae-Il, Bae Doo-Na, Go Ah-Sung and so on is just as great."
PRESS SCREENING CLIP
YTN Live - Press Screening (Downloadable, 13mb, Windows Media)