We chat with Joon-ho Bong about the unusual cast of characters that populate his latest film.
A Marvel superhero, an arthouse icon, one of the best Asian directors working today, and the apocalypse come together in Snowpiercer, the frozen-dystopia sci-fi actioner opening June 27. (You snooze, you lose, global warming!)
In an extreme departure from his Captain America persona, Chris Evans abandons his patriotic shield and picks up a mean-looking ax instead as Curtis, the rebel leader of dirt-faced proletariats determined to overthrow society because they’re too tired to be afraid anymore. The strange thing is, Curtis, his fellow would-be revolutionaries, and the bougie scum about to go the way of the dodo all reside on the same train called Snowpiercer — the only place on Earth still hospitable to humanity. The film’s deceptively simple plot hinges on the rebels’ efforts to kick, hack, and outsmart their way from the caboose to the enigmatic but evil conductor’s car.
Among Curtis’ obstacles is a preening but terrifying bureaucrat played by Tilda Swinton, virtually unrecognizable in a nightmarish Margaret Thatcher costume. But Curtis encounters difficulty holding on to his allies, too; his most important asset in getting from car to car is a cranky, curse-prone drug addict (South Korean superstar Kang-ho Song) who truly doesn’t appear to care whether he lives or dies.
Snowpiercer was a project born of love at first sight. South Korean director Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Memories of Murder) reportedly devoured the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige in one sitting at his regular comic-book store in Seoul, then shared it with Oldboy director Chan-wook Park, who promptly secured the film rights for his friend.
If you’ve kept up with news of Snowpiercer‘s difficult behind-the-scenes drama, you already know that Bong and producer Harvey Weinstein disputed for months over the editing of the film. Rest assured, the version of the film to be released in theaters is the director’s cut; Bong’s rock-solid resolve won out over Weinstein’s “Scissorhands.”
Speaking through a translator, Bong openly discusses why he fell in love with the Le Transperceneige, his influences for the project (including a Pixar film), why he gender-switched Tilda Swinton’s character, and why he made Evans’ character the Luke Skywalker of the film and Song’s character its Han Solo.
Inkoo Kang: Why were you so drawn to the source material?
Joon-ho Bong: It was just the idea of a train. Many people love trains. In Germany and Japan, there are train “otakus.” I also love trains — I watched the Japanese comic Galaxy Express 999 — and imagining [being] inside a train for two hours was really exciting.
But of course the film isn’t about trains. It’s really about the people inside the trains. They’re the survivors after a new Ice Age begins, and they’re fighting inside this train, the rich against the poor. So there was a sociological and political aspect to this story as well, which was also exciting.
Inkoo Kang: Do you have any thoughts on why so many dystopian movies are about social inequality?
Joon-ho Bong: It’s a relevant theme that still affects us today, the way the ideas of class and revolt developed in tandem with human evolution. It’s a consistent issue for humans living in [any] society, whether it’s slaves revolting, the class struggle, or Spartacus.
Inkoo Kang: One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is that Chris Evans’ character, Curtis, is a very untraditional Hollywood hero. He does several things that you would never expect, say, Bruce Willis to do.
Joon-ho Bong: Yeah, he cries twice and he abandons [SPOILER]. As I was writing the script, I didn’t imagine [Evans] as Captain America. [Curtis] is a very dark character, and physically he’s moving forward in the train but he’s mentally stuck in the past, in the back of the train.
Chris really wanted to do the movie. Although he’s very proud of his work on the Marvel films, between those big projects he tries to do more interesting films like Puncture and Sunshine. I was excited to show a different side of Chris Evans.
Inkoo Kang: How did Tilda Swinton, who dominates every scene she’s in, get cast?
Joon-ho Bong: At the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, I was there as a jury member for the Camera d’Or [prize] and she was there in competition for We Need to Talk About Kevin. We met for brunch and said we’re both fans of each other, [so] let’s do something [together].
The character she ended up playing was a male character in the script. So there’s a gender change, but Tilda Swinton transcends gender. She embodied Minister Mason naturally; she melted into the character. And at that point in her career, Tilda just wanted to do something fun. Her previous films took a long time to make and they were very heavy roles that were hard to do. So she just wanted to play.
The funny thing is, we did a gender change, but all the dialogue and all the details of the character are the same. The other characters [still] call her “Sir.”
Inkoo Kang: Can you talk about which movies you were interested in or influenced by when making this movie?
Joon-ho Bong: I’m a huge fan of sci-fi movies, like John Carpenter’s They Live and The Thing. [But] rather than sci-fi movies, I sought out train movies, like John Frankenheimer’s The Train and Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train — Jon Voight and the train running in the snow.
It’s a totally different film, but I rewatched the later part of Wall-E. The people inside the spaceship, the fat people. They were on that ship for hundreds of years and that’s how they got fat. It reminded me of the front-section passengers [in Snowpiercer].
Inkoo Kang: How did you come up with the film’s structure, where each new railcar feels like you’re entering a different universe every twenty minutes?
Joon-ho Bong: The different train sections — the structure was very critical because the way the train cars are divided, it’s part of the narrative.
Because it was such a limited budget, I didn’t want to shoot anything that would be taken out in editing. In the script-writing process, I took out everything I didn’t think was absolutely necessary and only shot what was absolutely crucial to the story. So I ended up making 26 train cars, and we see all of them in the movie.
Inkoo Kang: In mainstream Hollywood movies, you almost never see interesting Asian/Asian-American characters, but here Kang-ho Song and Ah-Sung Ko, who plays the po-faced safecracker and his resourceful, possibly psychic daughter, are the two most interesting characters in the film. Was that at all on your mind when you were writing your script?
Joon-ho Bong: Yes, exactly. Those two characters are not in the graphic novel, like Tilda Swinton’s [female] character. As an audience member, I hate, for example, the characters in Memoirs of a Geisha. As an Asian audience member, it’s very strange to see a Chinese actress for a Japanese geisha role speaking English.
I wanted to get away from the stereotype of Asian characters being really good at martial arts or having some sort of strange and evil tendency. I really wanted Song to speak in his native language and, because it’s a sci-fi film, you can have a device like the [instant] translation machine.
Comparing it to Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is the main character but it’s Han Solo who changes the flow of the narrative and is actually the more interesting character. He’s the joker. [Like Song’s safecracker character,] he’s the hidden, real lead of the movie.