Bong Joon Ho makes his English-language debut with $40m sci-fi feature Snowpiercer. Jean Noh meets the acclaimed South Korean director.

Snowpiercer is not only the first English-language film for Bong Joon Ho, it is also, at $40m, his most expensive project to date.

Set during a post-apocalyptic ice age, where the only survivors are the inhabitants of the Snowpiercer train, the ambitious film’s cast includes Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, John Hurt and Tilda Swinton, who was the first to come on board the project after meeting Mother director Bong in Cannes in 2011.

“Before I even gave her the script, we decided person to person that we wanted to work together,” says Bong. “She is like a female Song Kang-ho. She created a distinctive character that transcends gender. Her motto on set was ‘F. U. N.’,” adds the South Korean director.

When it came to casting the lead, Bong says it was luck and fate that brought him to Evans. “If it hadn’t been for Chris, there wouldn’t have been a Snowpiercer. He looks like a superhero or an American football player but he’s a very subtle person. We took those delicate sensibilities and created layers for his character. He doesn’t just smash through everything and shoot guns. In those moments when action is suspended, Chris’s face could show that subtlety and sensitivity.”

Meanwhile, veteran actor John Hurt was a great source of morale, according to Bong. “John Hurt’s more than just an actor to me. He told me how he’d seen Mother as a British Film Institute member and he wanted to do all he could to make Snowpiercer a success. He brought so much support for me and his younger colleagues on set,” says Bong, adding: “There were scenes only he could have pulled off.”

Short, sharp shoot

The team shot the film in the Czech Republic over 72 days. “We shot on set in Barrandov Studios so we weren’t affected by weather or travel. The shoot was the shortest I’ve done for a feature,” says Bong, who once again teamed up with cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo.

“As with Mother, he was able to make the images in my head real without CGI.”

‘Tilda Swinton created a character that transcends gender. Her motto on set was F.U.N.’

Having shot his Tokyo! triptych segment in Japan, and worked with specialists in the US and New Zealand on his 2006 film The Host, Bong was no stranger to working overseas.

“The basic mechanisms of film-making, whether in Korea or abroad, are the same,” says Bong, who nevertheless credits Czech-born production designer Ondrej Nekvasil (The Illusionist) with gathering local resources as well as realising his vision for a train in perpetual motion.

New to Bong were the American Screen Actors Guild regulations for child actors. “They’re very strict about work and rest periods. No matter how focused a child is in the moment, you have to take a break at the designated time. In Korea, you’d get the shot first,” he says.

With a multi-national cast and crew, English was the common language. “For simple communications with actors or technical aspects, I didn’t need an interpreter. For subtler things with the actors, co-producer Dooho Choi, a Korean-American film-school graduate, did the most in-depth interpreting,” says Bong.

The director describes Snowpiercer as, first and foremost, a science-fiction film. “Sci-fi is a genre where you can express the human condition and systems in which we live much more directly and symbolically. My beliefs are in the story. What does it mean to truly overcome a system or means of oppression? What are the dangers? It’s a film that asks these questions and I don’t leave it to ambiguity at the end.”

Korea’s CJ E&M financed the bulk of the film and pre-sold it to 167 territories. The Weinstein Company (TWC) has picked up rights for English-speaking territories (no US release date had been confirmed as of press time).

“I escaped CJ intervention but TWC has final cut on the US version. It’s my first time working like this. You have to be flexible and do a lot of convincing,” Bong says. Released in Korea on July 31 by CJ, the director’s cut racked up an impressive $45.6m in its first two weeks.

As for his next project, Bong is open to ideas. “Maybe another English-language project, or Okja - a Korean heroine’s adventure. For the first time after a release, I haven’t decided on my next project yet.”