Only a few months ago South Korean director Bong Joon-ho was on a government blacklist. Now his big-budget movie “Okja” is being talked up as a contender for the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
The mild-mannered filmmaker – who has been compared with a “Steven Spielberg in his prime” by no less than Quentin Tarantino – was secretly targeted by the now ousted president Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the country’s late dictator.
Under her, the authorities blacklisted nearly 10,000 artists and writers who expressed “left-wing thoughts” – meaning that they criticized her or her policies.
“It was a such a nightmarish few years that left many South Korean artists deeply traumatised,” Bong said.
“Many are still reeling from the trauma,” said the director, whose US$50 million Netflix feature – which premieres on Friday – is about a country girl who tries to save a genetically-engineered beast from a greedy multinational company.
The blacklist, aimed at starving the artists of state subsidies, read like a Who’s Who of Seoul’s art scene, including Bong and Park Chan-wook, whose erotic thriller The Handmaiden became an international hit after its premiere at Cannes last year.
Bong, 47, made his name with a series of films seen as satires of South Korean society, including crime thriller Memories of Murder – which portrays the repressive social atmosphere under army rule in the 1980s.
Hit with ‘The Host’
His 2006 monster blockbuster The Host describes an incompetent government left helpless in the wake of a disaster. Eight years later, parallels were drawn between the film and the Sewol ferry sinking that killed 300 people, mostly schoolchildren.
After the nation watched the ship slowly sink on live television, Park’s government came under fire for its botched rescue efforts, and Bong was among those who backed an inquiry.
It was “such a big, heartbreaking tragedy and a massively traumatizing experience for so many South Koreans, myself included,” said the bespectacled sociology graduate.
Many artists who joined the call for an inquiry were included in the blacklist, with some placed under secret state surveillance.
Bong said his prominence helped him secure private backing regardless, but others were not so lucky.
An ex-culture chief for Park ordered bulk ticket purchases for screenings of Sewol documentary Diving Bell in a bid to prevent the public from seeing it.
Cinema Dal, the movie’s distributor, had all its state funding requests denied, pushing it to the brink of collapse, and its employees had their phone records tapped.
Freedom of speech
Even the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) – Asia’s biggest movie event – was hit with an unprecedented cut in state funding and a flurry of official probes into organizers after it showed Diving Bell in 2014.
“Everyone at the film industry knew for years that something was going seriously gravely wrong… but we couldn’t put a name to it back then,” said Bong, the head of the Directors’ Guild of Korea.
“We finally came to know exactly why only a few months ago.”
Bong directed his first Hollywood film Snowpiercer in 2012 starring Tilda Swinton and Chris Evans.
The success of the sci-fi story, seen as a metaphor for unhinged capitalism and inequality, led to Okja, which stars Swinton and Lily Collins.
The highly-anticipated action-adventure is one of five South Korean films being screened at this year’s Cannes.
“It is essentially a love story between the animal and the little girl, but also looks at how our lives are inevitably shaped under the capitalist system, whether you are a human or an animal,” Bong said.
It is his first time in competition at the festival, after several other appearances.
“Okja is my sixth movie, but the moment you show your film to the whole world for the first time is always so unnerving,” he said, adding he was feeling “nervous, thrilled and a bit relieved” to have finished the high-profile project.
He is also relieved that the election of left-leaning former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in last week could draw a line under the South’s political turmoil.
The greater freedom of speech that South Korea has enjoyed since 1992 – when a president without a military background was elected – has been credited with helping transform what was once an army-ruled backwater into a cultural powerhouse, its vibrant entertainment industry taking Asia by storm.
Bong said: “I believe the future will be brighter with freedom of expression restored.”