Monday, 31 January 2011

The Directors: Bong Joon-ho

The new episode of our director series concerns the South-Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (b. 1969). He is a master of thrillers and mysteries, but mixes surprising elements to each one of his films. I am quite fond of his genre-bending ways and have loved each film of his a little more (but I'd like to point out I didn't see them in the order they were made). So let's takea a SWOT analysis of his talents.


Bong can create a great athmosphere of suspense and create intriguing mysteries without ever getting too gimmicky or messing it up with a hard-handed twist. He has a strong visual style of not utilizing too many colours on screen at once, that reminiscens black-and-white films. He's rarely found to treat heavy subjects lightly, even with his trademark humour bubbling in between. He is also a master in creating a tension-filled athmosphere and by emitting a character's sadness through visual means only.

W eaknesses

Every one of Bong's films has a great deal of comedy, and he can overdo it at some points. His least perfect film, The Host messes with a little too much ingredients and struggles in points to find balance.

O pportunities

Bong could be a true modern Hitchcock or a Korean Fincher. He has an opportunity to blur genre lines even futher and create a string of masterpieces which work on multiple levels.

T hreats

Bong could also water down his thrillers with too goofy comedy, or mix too much elements into the film that they get more and more of a mess.

Barking Dogs Never Bite (Flandersui gae, 2000)

Bong did his feature film debut with this gem, which is my favorite of his films. It is a drama/comedy and quite black at that. The main character Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) is the unemployed college graduate who dreams of becoming a professor. As my future (being a student of humanities) is probably to become an unemployed academic, I understand his frustrations all too well. In the Korean culture there is also a level of corruption so you may need to give some bribes to get the position you want. However, Yun-ju is poor and wouldn't want to use his precious few moneys on a thing like a bribe. More pressure is put upon him by his wife who's expecting a child and has her own view of spending the family money. Yun-ju spends his days at home where he gets irritated by the neighbour's dog constantly yapping. He decides to get rid of the mutt once and for all. But his actions have long-term consequences and he soon finds himself in a heap of trouble with dogs. In the same apartment building there seems to live other people as well who aren't that friendly towards dogs.

It is a oft-heard western joke that Koreans like to eat dogs. The animal is a taboo in Western countries only because we think of the animals as being somewhat more humane to other animals and thus ideal companions. The modern South-Korea is in a sort of crossroads between the Western and Asian traditions. Thus, the film makes fun of the persceptions the Koreans have on dogs. What is the faithful friend to one is an annoying pest to others, and a delicious lunch to others. The different classes also come out to play as being the most educated means often being the most immoral and being the most poor may not mean one understands the viewpoints of people from different classes. Bong's comedy is at its peak-point here as the film gets ever-more farcical as dogs keep disappearing and the mystery deepenes. Surely our hero Yun-ju couldn't have wasted all of them off-screen? The Buddhist view of Karma is also both at play and sometimes discarded just to keep things interesting. No bad thing goes unpunished, but then again, no good thing either. The film also benefits from great actor work and a good script that fleshes out omedic characters into multi-dimensional beings that have all-too real feelings. It's a great film.

★★★★ 1/2

Memories of Murder (Salinui Chueok, 2003)

The powerful film magazine Sight And Sound picked Memories of Murder to be on its list of the best movies of the 2000s. And I also regret missing having it on my Thriller list. Memories is basically like the korean Zodiac, except of course Memories became first (is Zodiac the American Memories of Murder?). They both are based on a real-life serial killer and the hunt to capture them, which in both cases proved ultimately to be futile. A serial killer on the loose rapes and kills young women in such a graphic way, the Zodiac Killer himself would shit his pants. The film takes place in 1986 and features also the growing tensions between North and South Korea. At that time the countries experienced border conflicts that sent soldiers into the streets. The hunt for the murderer is equalled as a search for some meaning and stability in a world gone crazy and violent. We can see from the state of the Korean peninsula today, how succesful this attempt was.

The film showcases two different kinds of policemen on the trail of the murderer. One believes in doing intensive research looking clearly through every clue available to catch the killer. The other believes in catching petty crooks and beating them up to get information. The first one is the preferred method of a city-based detective, whereas the countryside police is a lot more amoral and tough with their idea of getting answers. The torturing of suspects reflects chillingly also the US information-gathering in Afghanistan at the time. At the time of the film's release, the USA invaded Iraq and soon put their POWs to Guantanamo Bay. It's almost as Bong had prophesized how the War Against Terrorism will go, for both ways of doing the search are equally unfruitful. Every time the policemen round up a suspect that could be the killer, something goes wrong. The policemen give up to each others ways to get results and the search becomes more and more brutal. Who Watches The Watchmen indeed.

Memories of Murder is the most dark and straight-faced of Bong's films (it and Mother are in a clearly different series to the rest). There is still a great deal of comedy on behalf of drunken and vomiting people. However, the film is perhaps a little too long, although a class act all the way.


The Host (Gwoemul, 2006)

Bong tried making a creature feature film with his next one. It was actually the first one of his films I ever saw at HIFF 2006. I was a bit confused by it and it does have a bit too much going on. The Host focuses on one family battling against a huge mutated monster. And the creature itself a wonderful movie monster, one for the ages. You know how the created Godzilla post-WWII from the collective Japanese fear of nuclear weapons? Bong uses some more modern Asian fears such as SARS and the Avian flu to create his new breed of monsters. It looks like a cross-breed between the upside-down beast from Hellraiser, The Predator and a newt. It captures innocent bystaders by surprise and its touch can give you diseases. Or so we've led to believe.

The real baddie isn't the monster, but rather the US Military, that is responsible for its creation by polluting the rivers, doing genetic tests and concealing the truth of their actions. The US also brings its soldiers into the streets which may bring up bad memories in the South Korean collective subconscious. The military also gives Bong the chance to satirize retarded American action films and their connections to the military.

Anyway, the family Park (a reference to fellow acclaimed director Park Chan-wook?) gets caught up in the monster situation, when the young girl Hyun-Seo gets kidnapped by the creature. The other family members get locked up without asking too many questions. The family are as well-fleshed characters as any in Bong's filmography, yet still feel a little too much like archetypes. Bong could've also controlled the amount of stupidity in his main protagonist, Park Gang-du.

So as well as an action movie, monster horror, family drama and a modern affairs satire, The Host is at parts also a comedy. Which may be its biggest flaw. The humour is so goofy, it seems to be aimed at a very broad comedy. Yet all the serious stuff in the film works at its disadvantage. At the beginning the humour feels discomforting, but one gets used to it and it does have a few really funny scenes. But it still ruins so much of the great athmosphere of uncertainty and hopelessness Bong has so masterfully created for a film with such a silly premise. One isn't quite sure whether Bong takes his film seriously himself. Then again, the Asian sense of humour is a lot more goofy than the western one. I find the joke parts in films like Hard Boiled equally hard to watch.

The Host may be Bong's most flawed feature film, but it is still a very welcome addition to both his filmography and the greater giant creature filmography as well. Bong's handling of different genres is always worth a look.


Tokyo! (2008)
Directors: Bong Joon-ho, Michel Gondry,  Leos Carax

Episodic films tend to be hit-and-miss, especially if they are done by multiple directors. Tokyo! is one of the better ones, as the styles of the directing two frenchmen and the korean Bong fit quite well together. Also three stories in two hours is not too much and every one has a good story which is told in a pace not too fast and not too slow.

Michel Gondry's effort, which starts the film, is probably the best, and features a young couple that moves to Tokyo. He's an art filmmaker and she does everything she can for him, which leads to a surprising development in her appearance. Leos Carax's part is the most anarchistic, and features a crazed hermit that lives in Tokyo's subvay tunnels. He regularly surfaces to scare the japanese, but when an affair with a couple of hand grenades goes haywire, the man simply called Merde (French for Shit, duh) is put on trial.

These are both pretty fun, but it's Bong's part that I'm discussing here. His short film features a shut-in (another hermit, or maybe the third one as the girl in Gondry's film was pretty much friendless herself) that has an OCD point-of-view in his crammed apartment. This is told in a very Bongian tongue-in-cheek humour. It features falling asleep on the toilet and arranging empty pizza boxes on the wall. Unlike the lonesome main characters in the other stories, Bong's protagonist has a chance for a better life and for love. Where Tokyo drifted the other people apart, the city is more gentle here and seems to want to help the poor bastard. This is done for instance by arranging earthquakes in appropriate moments. Most of Bong's time is spent on running around the place looking for the love. In that it's probably the most boring of the three stories in Tokyo!. Yet, because it is pretty cheerful and sweet-hearted in nature, it is quite hard to dislike. It is nothing special in Bong's career, but a nice effort for a nice episode film.


Mother (Madeo, 2009)

I talked a little about Mother already in my Love & Anarchy 2010 article. Mother is a close relative to Memories of Murder, as it also presents Korea to be a dark, terrifying place where human life can end at any sudden moment. Yet there is still good and strong values in that world, and the strongest of those is a mother's love. But that would be too easy an approach for Bong to take. The film makes us ponder whether even that feeling is so pure in the end. The Mother (Kim Hye-ja) has some guilt issues she is trying to compensate by helping out her boy. His boy Do-joon (Won Bin) is a little slow, and like Lenny in Of Mice And Men, gets into trouble because of not quite understanding. Do-joon also hangs around a wrong crowd that does not care for him and seems to be laughing at him and not with. The boy is soon blamed for murder and the mother wovs to prove him innocent. Mother is shot mostly in greyish tones and foggy landscapes.

Audience is kept at toes, because Mother takes its time to take its actual form. The film progresses leisurely, focusing on the athmosphere and moods. It may seem like a over-the-top comedy at the beginning, but sudden outbursts of violence and cruelty quickly demolishes this image. If Michael Haneke had a sense of humour, he might create something similar.

The story unfolds wonderfully in fragments and paints different characters we thought we knew in a different light. Bong also utilizes his critical look on Korean institutions. He satirizes the unfair justice system, and the way the Korean society leaves people living on the streets, living with any scraps they can find. Even a poor person that has a crammed apartement to live in can sneer at the beggars and think of them as seedy and untrustworthy. The real threat comes form the Working Class itself and its in-built cruelty and contempt to others. And that is caused by their hardships in day-to-day living as well. The vicious cycle of Korean society is shown to be pretty comfortless. There are no Hostian family values here to get through all the darkness within. And the end result is another Bong class act.


I should point out that short films and Episode film parts do not count to the main score.
Bong Joon-ho's Score: 3,88

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