EXCLUSIVE: Joon-ho Bong Takes Us Deep Into the Heart of TOKYO!
The acclaimed director of The Host talks about his participation in this amazing new anthology film
TOKYO! is a dynamic new anthology film from three of world cinema's great visionaries: Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-ho. A uniquely entertaining modern-day triptych, TOKYO! explores Japan's multifaceted capital city through three indelible stories: a Kafkaesque fable about a young woman's bizarre physical transformation; an arch-punk mini-monster-movie in which a man rises from the sewers to wreak havoc on the city; and a beguiling tale about a hermit who ventures outside in search of love. We recently caught up with director Bong Joon-ho, best known in the states for his horrific monster thriller The Host, to chat with him about his installment: Shaking Tokyo. The story follows the plight of a Hikikomori (a Japanese shut-in) who ventures outside for the first time to experience love. Here is what he had to say about his work on this stirring group project:
How did the three of you come to create this particular anthology of Tokyo based films? What was the main push behind it?
Bong Joon-ho: To me, the biggest motive to participate in this project was the city of Tokyo itself. It is the most frequently visited foreign city. The complexity and complicated history; the very strange feelings. It was so appealing to approach those feelings with a film.
Did you know what the other two directors were planning with their segments before or during the making of your own film? And did this affect the narrative that you planned to present?
Bong Joon-ho: These were totally separate works. Our shooting schedule was also different. We didn't have a chance to meet. There was no guideline or overall theme that the production company planned to impose. Of course, there was one common factor: That Tokyo should be the background. That's why it felt really strange to premiere it at Cannes. We all saw each other's films for the first time there.
Were there any rules that all three of you, as directors, had to abide by?
Bong Joon-ho: The only rule was that it should be about Tokyo. Other than that, everything was up to the individual and their approach. That was the most attractive point of this project.
What is it about your particular sensibilities that made you feel your work would be a good cohesive match with that presented by Gondry and Carax?
Bong Joon-ho: We, as three directors, are very different. If we felt something in common, it is because of the power of Tokyo. Equivalence and difference. This is the attractiveness of the omnibus. Hysteria, reclusiveness, and the loneliness of Tokyo. These are so powerful. As a director, it was a great honor to have an opportunity to work with these two people. Specifically, Carax. He was my idol when I was a high school boy, and working with him on an omnibus was so novel and surreal.
How does being a foreigner to Japan play into the overall message of the story you are presenting? Is this your view of the country? That everyone is trapped indoors? Or that everyone needs to be shaken awake?
Bong Joon-ho: When I look at the Japanese as a foreigner, especially as a Korean, they look so obsessed. Koreans are short-tempered. They are like Latin Americans, Italians or Spaniards. If we look at the Japanese from that perspective, the Japanese look so faint-hearted and obsessed. That's why I selected the character of Hiki Komori. What I mean is, those images of people living in seclusion. They were so secluded that I was tempted to shake them up. Those images were so intense.
What interests you most about the agoraphobic mind, and why was it important for you to center your story on this type of character?
Bong Joon-ho: To be more precise, it is not agoraphobia, it is a fear of being contacted or of being influenced by each other. The theme of this film is, roughly speaking, Hiki Komori are people who cannot touch each other. It is absolutely impossible for them to have contact while ordering things via phones and internet. I think this film became more of a strange love story because love is not possible without overcoming this. The Japanese, especially people in Tokyo, seem to try very hard not to touch each other. I suggest you go to places like a crowded subway or streets flooded with people, and then observe how they try not to touch each other.
What is the true definition of Hikikomori?
Bong Joon-ho: Hikikomori means pulling inwards, secluded from the world and staying in the innermost place of a house. It is a word the Japanese invented to describe the social phenomenon of the 1990s when they used abbreviations like remocon for remote control, and perscom for personal computer.
In the film, your main character stacks up various documents of his existence, and keeps them as reminders of his daily toil. Does this reflect Tokyo's natural instinct to surround it self with the past, and always keep it there as a constant reminder of who it is as a town?
Bong Joon-ho: Firstly, it is absolutely an obsession. Everything needs to be plotted perfectly. As a director, I just wanted to shake it. Of course, key figures are trying to keep it. For the key figures, it is an obsession as well as pride. A wish to raise Hikikomori to the level of an art. Actually, a great deal of success (in plotting perfectly) was accomplished. Secondly, as you said before, it is time. Accumulated time, like an annual ring of trees, or like piled up layers of soil. There are piles of empty pizza boxes, and there are piles of old weekly and monthly magazines, which show the long time he spent there and his life itself.
Are we intended to view this as a film that takes place in the future? Your hero is seen pushing buttons on this young girl. Is that supposed to be visually metaphoric of the power he has hidden within himself?
Bong Joon-ho: Pushing buttons is like a portal to him since he spends a long time without contacting others. There is a line of dialogue, "I hate the sunlight. I hate being touched, that's why Hikikomori." Pushing buttons on the girl is the first contact he has. To this man, it was like sex. For instance, look at how the hairs stand up when he pushes the buttons. I shot this scene as though it were a sex scene.
What can you tell us about the films you are currently in production on now?
Bong Joon-ho: I am currently working on the second half of my fourth feature, Mother. After that, I plan to work on the screenplay of the 5th long story, Train of Snow Country. Mother is a story of a mother and a son and it is a unique crime drama.
We know that Host 2 is in production. Did you have anything to do with this sequel? How deeply were you involved, if at all?
Bong Joon-ho: In Korea, Monster 2 is being prepared. I gave all rights regarding it to the production company, Chung-Eo-Ram. I am not involved at all. I just wish the sequel would make for a good series. The American remake is being made at Universal, and Gore Verbinski is the producer. I heard the director and writer were already selected. I really hope for a good remake. The Chinese version of the Monster is being worked by a talented young director, Ling Hao, and I have high expectations. I never get involved in any of these remakes. Basically, I am not interested in remakes or sequels. I have too many new stories that I want to put in film.
Is there a particular genre of film that you are looking to tackle in the future?
Bong Joon-ho: All genres can be my hunting targets. However, only one area, musicals, does not seem to be my target. I just cannot adjust to that genre, physically or mentally.
TOKYO! is currently playing in limited release throughout the country.