Korean director Bong makes leap from government blacklist to Cannes contender

South Korean director Bong Joon Ho at a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday (May 16).
South Korean director Bong Joon Ho at a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday (May 16). PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - 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 film-maker - who has been compared to "Steven Spielberg in his prime" by no less than Quentin Tarantino - was secretly targeted by the now ousted president Park Geun Hye.

Under her, the authorities blacklisted nearly 10,000 artists and writers who expressed "left-wing thoughts" - meaning criticising her or her policies.

"It was a such a nightmarish few years that left many South Korean artists deeply traumatised," Bong told AFP.

"Many are still reeling from the trauma," said the director, whose US$50 million (S$70 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 a big international hit after it was premiered at Cannes last year.

 

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Bong, 47, said his prominence helped him secure private backing but others were not so lucky.

An ex-culture chief for Park ordered bulk ticket purchases for screenings of Sewol documentary Diving Bell to prevent the public from seeing the work about a ferry that sank.

Cinema Dal, the movie's distributor, had all its state funding requests denied, pushing it to the brink of collapse.

Even the Busan International Film Festival - Asia's biggest movie event - was hit with an unprecedented cut in state funding and a flurry of official probes into organisers after it showed Diving Bell in 2014.

While such incidents unnerved Bong, showing his latest work in Cannes is also taxing for him.

"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.