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(Yonhap Feature) Korean directors go global with latest films
By Jason Bechervaise
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Feb. 21 (Yonhap) -- For Bong Joon-ho, a critically acclaimed South Korean film director who has built a reputation overseas, a global project would seem like the next logical step. Though his next piece will screen internationally this summer, that wasn't originally the goal.

   What would become "Snowpiercer" began back in 2005 when Bong read the French comic "Le Transperceneige," a chronicle of the world's last remaining inhabitants after a man-made ice age forces them to traverse the globe on a train.

   "I was so fascinated by the graphic novel, and I wanted to make a very exciting train and sci-fi movie. The story focused on the human condition and social system on the train. That made me crazy, that's why I made this movie," he said in a recent interview.

   "When the ice age comes, it doesn't just come to Korea, it's a worldwide occurrence, so I thought having all the passengers be Korean wouldn't make sense," he said. "Therefore, I tried to get an international cast. As a result, it became an international film, but that's not how I intended it to be."

Director Bong Joon-ho. His film "Snowpiercer" will debut internationally in the summer. (Courtesy of Jason Bechervaise)

Poster of Bong Joon-ho's new film "Snowpiercer" (Courtesy of CJ E&M Pictures)

Though not necessarily intentional, as Korean films become an increasingly prevalent feature at renowned film festivals across the globe, many of the country's top directors like Bong are moving on beyond their comfortable home borders.

   Kim Jee-woon, who also says his dream "wasn't going to Hollywood," made his Hollywood debut last month with the U.S. release of action-packed "The Last Stand" starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Park Chan-wook's "Stoker" will be screened in the U.S. and U.K. on March 1.

   Bong cultivated an international audience through his films such as "Memories of Murder" (2003) and "The Host" (2006). "This time the scale is a lot bigger, and it will get a wide release in the U.S, so the character of the movie is slightly different, but I try to keep my own movie style. I think that's the most important thing," he said.

   Maintaining one's style would have been one of a number of challenges for these directors as they made their leap to the global stage.

   For Kim, who established a strong reputation in Korea and overseas for tackling a number of different genres -- from the horror "A Tale of Two Sisters" (2003) to the western "The Good, The Bad, The Weird" (2008) -- his concern was things getting lost in the translation.

   "Making movies is always something I have done, so it didn't feel like anything special, but it made me think hard how Asians, Americans and Europeans would understand the humor," he said. "So in the early stages, after shooting a scene, as a test, I would show it to the whole team, and the reaction wasn't too bad. This boosted my confidence."

   Invariably there are differences when working in Hollywood.

   "In Korea, when it comes to working on a movie, a director is like a king. But in Hollywood, the producer and the studio all have an equal say, so when the director has an idea, the director has to persuade the producer and studio to make them agree," Kim said.

   Bong's "Snowpiercer" isn't a Hollywood production, having been funded by a Korean studio. But 90 percent of the crew were either English or American, and everything proceeded according to the American way, union regulations among them. "At first it was quite difficult to get used to, but we got used to it," said Bong.

   Administrative things aside, these directors are all too aware of the risks involved in these global projects. Having cast Schwarzenegger, Kim admits to the pressure of high expectations by the audience and the need to make something new, and while it's ultimately up to the audience to decide, he feels as a team, they were able to handle these demands.

South Korean director Kim Jee-woon holds a press conference in Los Angeles on Jan. 14, 2013 ahead of the U.S. release of his Hollywood movie "The Last Stand." (Yonhap file photo)

"If they (Korean directors) can expand their scope and have their talent seen by a wider audience, it would be a good thing," he said. "But I think Korean directors should take it slow and look into the details carefully before they go to Hollywood."

   Bong agrees. "Just being obsessed with going into Hollywood could destroy a career, so I think directors have to be careful."

   The global outreach of Korean directors initially may be individual projects, but in the end, it could raise the profile of Korea's cinema industry as a whole, as illustrated by Guillermo Del Toro and Ang Lee, according to Bong.

   After his movie "Hellboy" became a hit, Del Toro made a Spanish language film, "Pan's Labyrinth." Although the film is in Spanish, because it was made by Del Toro, people were interested in it, Bong said. "Ang Lee, too. Because he succeeded in Hollywood, whenever he makes a Chinese language film like 'Lust Caution,' he can reach a global audience, because it was made by Ang Lee.

   "Myself and Park Chan-wook for example, we can potentially deliver the same role -- working on an English language movie, then coming back to Korea and making Korean films. If (the movie) is good, people may like watching Korean films, too, so the profile of Korean films could be raised," he said.

Director Park Chan-wook (R) with the cast of his movie "Stoker" -- (from L) Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode -- at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 20, 2013.. (Provided by 20th Century Fox Korea)

And it's not just the directors who can benefit from the exposure, but the crew as well.

   "This time when I went to Hollywood, I didn't go by myself," Kim said. "I went with the camera director, music director and editing director. Looking at the results produced by them, Hollywood will see the high quality of Korean films and the crews are as good as any Hollywood crews," he said.

   Already, there are signs. "With Park Chan-wook's 'Stoker,' for example, the film was well shot, so Hollywood has expressed an interest in cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon," said Bong. "As a result, this also raises the profile of Korean crews as well."
Twitter: @koreanjase