Sunday, April 11, 2010

Monsters Among Us: The Films of Bong Joon-Ho


When I asked myself recently whether there had been any exciting new directors that started their career in the first decade of this century, I mostly drew a blank. Sure, there were some filmmakers who exhibited some interesting ideas in their first films, but have had trouble getting a follow-up film together particularly in this unforgiving economic climate or have simply whiffed at bat in their subsequent films. What has been rare is to see a filmmaker take chances with every new film, exploring different subject matter with a certain level of ambition or demonstrating a willingness to expand their style much from their debut films. To me, the sign of a great director has to do with how much further they explore with each new film rather than finding an identity and then repeating themselves throughout their career.

That is why I consider Bong Joon-Ho the most significant director to have started his feature film career in the aughts. Each of his feature films seem like mere genre pieces on the surface, but then you see a true humanist approach to his characters, who often feel like real people living in absurd worlds. His feature films range from a social satire to a police procedural to a monster movie to a morality tale involving crime and family. Even those descriptions do not actually do justice to what each of these films accomplish, as they often veer so wildly in tone (not just from scene to scene, but sometimes within scenes) that you begin to realize that Bong may not just be subverting genre, but may actually be creating a cinematic universe where classifying stories as thriller, drama, science fiction or comedy may be irrelevant.


Currently, Bong Joon-Ho's latest film "Mother" is being released around the country. (Unfortunately, like many foreign films today, the release seems to be more of a contractually obligated promotion for the DVD, which will probably drop a few months from now.) This seemed liked the best time to seek out the rest of his filmography, including his shorts, and explain why he is one of the few directors to have started within this century to make such a significant mark so early on. We seemed to have spent most of the last decade still talking about the major films of directors who started in the 1990's.


Luckily, as I was putting this piece together, someone recently posted Bong's student films on YouTube. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4) A quadrilogy of absurdist films titled "Incoherence", you can see Bong in a playful mood that has not exactly been missing from his feature films since. The first part, "Cockroach", is about a sexually repressed professor who sends a student to retrieve photocopies from his office where a pornographic magazine sits out in the open on his desk. This results in his attempt to beat her to the office to hide the magazine before she gets there. The second part, "Up the Alleys", follows a teenager who is mistakenly tricked by a jogger, an older man, into drinking a glass of milk from a delivery left in front of someone else's house, which gets him into some trouble. This results in the teenager going after the jogger for a futile revenge. The third part, "The Night of Pain", follows the aftermath of a drunken night between two friends as one of them attempts to make it home. The fourth part is the epilogue, which I will spoil in the next paragraph, so I would watch them at the links above before proceeding.

These shorts comprise little moments of amorality that are committed by supposedly upstanding members of our society. Granted, none of these are great crimes. Owning a pornographic magazine. Fooling someone else into stealing milk. Being a general drunken nuisance particularly towards one security guard. These are the acts of everyday assholes that some of us have to tolerate whenever we go deal with others day to day. However, their greatest crime has yet to be revealed until the epilogue, which consists mostly of a television screen showing these three characters as part of a panel show where they talk about how society has lost its morals and what should be done about it. Their hypocrisy is worse than any of their individual acts. At the end of the epilogue, Bong follows the three people these characters have wronged as they live their lives while their debate plays on television in the background.

Even in film school, you can see Bong Joon-Ho has an affinity for satire even if the message is a bit obvious. As with his later films, I marvel at the construction of these pieces, never letting you in what theme actually unites them until the final part. At first, they seemed like the many silly student films I used to see back in my NYU days, but I was surprised that a director at his age seemed more interested in commenting on the world around him more than just replicating moments from his favorite movies.


This sense of satire about Korean society carried over to his later films mixed in with other genres, but his first feature, "Barking Dogs Never Bite", is the closest in tone to his student films. This movie revolves, once again, around another professor, Yun-ju, who lives in a small apartment in a large complex with his pregnant wife. Bothered by a dog yapping outside, Yun, who works part-time, decides to lock it up in the basement which results in a series of events involving a couple of other dog murderers and a slacker of a woman named Hyeon-nam (played by Doona Bae, who was also the anarchist girlfriend in "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" and the archer sister in "The Host").

"Barking Dogs" is one of the oddest films I have seen in recent times because it seems to build an entire commentary about the ways people want to conform in society around a series of events that are pretty ridiculous. Watching "Barking Dogs" seems like witnessing what happens when the styles of Jim Jarmusch and Robert Altman mated for a film to demonstrate how the rigid social structure of South Korea results in a great deal of unhappiness. Yun-ju may take out his anger on dogs, but his real frustrations are more about his inability to get a better teaching position while his wife carries the burden of supporting the family. It seems like society has told him one too many times that he is a failure because he has not achieved what he was supposed to at his age.

Hyeon-nam represents the opposite of what Yun-ju strives for. At first, you think this is a story about how these characters might meet and fall in love with the free spirit Hyeon-nam redeeming the more uptight Yun-ju. They actually meet sort of cute when she chases him throughout the entire apartment complex after he successfully kills a dog by throwing it off the roof. Thankfully, Bong does not resort to that tired device and turns the film into a meditation on how both these characters may want a different life and how they both come to different conclusions about whether it is actually worth it. Not to give too much away (no plot summary of this movie would ever quite capture what is going on here), the movie questions whether Yun-ju's goal of attaining a better teaching position would actually make him happier. He may genuinely love his wife and looks forward to having a baby with her, but he may have found himself in a position that society would more than happy have him stuck in.

Meanwhile, Hyeon-nam clearly has lived her life on the fringe, going from job to job and passing the time with her slovenly best friend. Even when brushing up against possible fame near the end of the film, at heart, she will never play along with conforming to society. Instead, Hyeon-nam continues to live her life the way she has, which, while imperfect, allows her to feel a little more satisfied and free. When watching "Barking Dogs", one cannot help but be reminded of Jason Reitman's alleged social satires which often seem to end with its outsider characters happily conforming to society or being punished for not doing so. There is even a significant shot at the end of "Barking Dogs" involving Yun-ju running until he is side by side with joggers that recalls the random jogger shots of "Juno". Except in this movie, they are not some cute visual device, but a commentary on a man trying to keep up with the pack, doomed to a fate of chasing success.


Bong Joon-Ho's next film "Memories of Murder" is also about something elusive, but represents a complete turn for its director into the crime genre. Made about four years before its American cousin, David Fincher's "Zodiac", "Memories" remains my favorite film from Bong, as not only does it work as a great procedural, but also is quite a damning depiction of South Korean law enforcement. The movie is based on the true story of serial murders that took place in South Korea from 1986 to 1991. The first detective on the case, Park Doo-man (played by the great Song Kang-Ho, who was also in "Joint Security Area", "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance", "The Host" and "Thirst") is revealed to be an almost cartoonishly oafish, loutish and generally incompetent cop. When evidence at the first scene is compromised, Park resorts to methods such as planting evidence and beating a confession out of an innocent (and mentally disabled) suspect to make his case. Should I also add that, despite this, Park is still the protagonist of the story and, despite Bong's depiction of his behavior, his character surprisingly deepens as somewhat insecure person who wants to do the right thing, but is limited by his intelligence and long-term bad habits.

Contrast Park's behavior with the seemingly more moral and smarter detective Seo Tae-yoon who is partnered with Park to solve the murders. For most of the film, Seo is depicted as the one interested in actually gathering clues and, at first, shows no interest in employing Park's thuggish methods. However, as time goes by and the frustrations from not solving the case build, Seo slowly devolves into a hothead who wants to enact justice on the one suspect who seems to be the most probable, while Park begins to realize that his own methods have most likely prevented them from ever finding the real killer.

"Memories" remains Bong's most haunting film, the first time he commits to making a drama, although I still believe that it is as much of a satire as his earlier films. Though he acknowledges the lack of resources to do a proper forensic investigation, Bong suggests that it was also the backwards thinking of the local police department that completely botched this case. The movie makes its two central detectives represent the two approaches that we all have witnessed to tragic events. The cerebral and the reactionary. There is one side who will break down the situation to find the truth, while the other side will lose all good sense to pin the crime on the first person who looks halfway suspicious.

The film, true to what happened in real life, refuses to give us closure on the matter, ending with the most likely suspect being let go due to his DNA not matching what was found at the crime scene. While Fincher's "Zodiac" became more a movie about obsession (and a great one at that), "Memories of Murder" goes in another direction, leaving us not only questions about who the real killer is, but how much the way of thinking from law enforcement in South Korea may have contributed to proper justice never being served. At the end of the film, the actions of the detectives seem to have done more longer term harm to others (especially that mentally disabled suspect and the cop Park used to deliver the suspect beatings) and particularly to themselves. The seemingly moral Seo nearly kills their final suspect regardless of the lack of evidence, while Park revisits the first murder scene many years later, making it clear that he still thinks the murderer is out there and, due to his initial actions, that person will never be found.

"Memories" was actually the first Bong Joon-Ho film I saw. Although his earlier films were more obviously comedies, I was surprised how broad he was able to play his humor in "Memories" while presenting some of his darkest material. As someone who has reviled the use of torture by my own country's government on suspected terrorists, I found myself often laughing at the extreme ways Bong depicts the violence against suspects and the casual manner in which evidence is planted. This is a film where the most brutal officer is shamed by his superior officer and gets into a drunken fight where his leg is impaled by a nail which results in its amputation. Something that is sad, but results from an absurd and just series of events. These moments represent what makes Bong so unique during these days where drama must be delivered straight-faced and every joke in a comedy must be explained. It is so refreshing to see a director who puts together scenes that dare us to laugh and be horrified by in equal measure.


Bong followed "Memories" with another crime film of sorts, a short titled "Influenza", which actually made me appreciate his visual choices as a director. "Influenza" (which can be seen at this site if you pay a monthly subscription) centers around the crime wave of a nameless man and woman, but told completely through security camera footage, as they each rob people in subways, parking lots and ATMs. A clear attempt to rob a bank results in one of the funniest punchlines Bong has delivered in any of his films. Now, I do not consider the film to have as much depth as his features, as much as I consider it an interesting exercise in style. One of the aspects of Bong Joon-Ho's filmmaking style that has gone unnoticed is his often formal setups where the compositions and cuts suit the story but do not call attention to themselves. He has a nearly unerring ability to place the camera in just the right place and make it feel as it comes from a more observational perspective. It is odd to see a director in this day and age who seems to be in such control of his shots, as opposed to giving a directive to his camera operators to shake the camera all over the place to create some false sense of excitement. There is a reason his films seem to flow so naturally despite some of the insane moments that occur in his stories.

"Influenza" seemingly falls into the category of movies that are supposed to be perceived as reality. But what makes the short work is the choice to use locked down security cameras to record the action, except in one case where the camera is set to automatically pan left and right intentionally frustrating the viewer who is missing some of the action going on. I feel this style often adds to the absurdism of Bong's films, as he never seems to cut or frame ridiculous moments as if they were a joke. You watch these two criminals on their spree, wondering how seriously we are supposed to take this. As with his other films, "Influenza" becomes a commentary on a society that callously creates these monsters. It certainly looks like the male half of the crime duo suffered a bit of a mental breakdown in the first scene where he is seen in a suit making a scene in a public bathroom. There is no more backstory to these characters than that, but they clearly represent how members of this society can easily just crack and take it out on innocent and unsuspecting people. The title of the short hints that this crime spree is something more like a societal disease. Perhaps, this is the result of the protagonist from "Barking Dogs" getting what he wanted.


Bong Joon-Ho takes his metaphor for society's ills one step further in his next film, "The Host", which is, one of the few times I can acknowledge the artistry in one of the most disreputable movie genres: the monster movie. The first moments of "The Host" show how the creature was created by a careless American scientist ordering a Korean assistant to dump chemicals into the water system. The creature makes an early entrance during an attack in broad daylight, taking a young girl, Hyun-seo, with him. Unlike other monster movies, the movie is not simply about monster attacks (although the one at the beginning of the film outdoes anything Steven Spielberg did in the "Jurassic Park" movies) but how the girl's family comes together to go find her. You can see that Bong Joon-Ho's interests are almost all over the place in this movie, as it seems to contain such a wide variety of genres and tones all within the same movie. It is science fiction, a dysfunctional family drama, an action movie, and a satire about government and society, as well as anything else you can come up with.

"The Host", much like its title suggests, seems to host everything Bong had done before and since, the themes for all of his movies crossing paths throughout this film. It is the first time that Bong would focus on family relationships that would extend into his latest film, "Mother", though that does not stop him from employing some of the more biting social commentary found in his work before then. The metaphorical monsters of conformity, corruption and hypocrisy becomes a literal monster in "The Host". Like Godzilla decades before and his short "Influenza", the monster represents how society's callous choices return to bite us all in the ass. The family in "The Host" is forced to do battle with something they had no hand in creating, but, in the end, two family members are sacrificed for it.

As in his previous films, Bong's depiction of authority is often derisive. He even has one government official in a biohazard suit perform a pratfall due to the unwieldiness of his gear. It is later revealed that the government perpetuated a hoax about a virus having come from the creature simply because they did not want to take any responsibility for having caused this to happen. When they perform a lobotomy on the missing girl's father, the slow-witted Park Gang-du, to shut him up, they cannot even do that correctly, as the operation hilariously cures him of his mental disability, making him more capable of facing off against the monster himself at the end.

The message is clear. The country does not have the best interests of its citizens at heart. A family is not only fighting a literal monster, but the monster represented by society's failures. Despite the government and the army getting involved, the monster is ultimately taken down by Park Gang-du, his archer sister Nam-joo and his former activist brother Nam-il pooling their collective talents. You can see Bong Joon-Ho employing his social commentary in such a deft fashion to also deliver his most emotionally accessible ending, an act of sacrifice that is sad and heartbreaking.


This open-heartedness in Bong's work extends to his short "Shaking Tokyo", which is the final movie in the anthology film "Tokyo!" (with other shorts directed by Michel Gondry and Leos Carax). This is the first time Bong builds his film around a love-at-first-sight narrative, which, of course, occurs within a world which has apparently gone to hell due to collective indifference. The film centers on a nameless, but funded, hikikomori (a Korean term for a shut-in), whose only connection to the outside world is what he can order from his phone. Every Saturday, he orders a pizza and then stacks all the empty pizza boxes in a section of his apartment. One of those Saturdays, when a woman delivers a pizza at the moment during an earthquake, causing her to faint and for our main character to fall in love.

The rest of the film becomes about how the shut-in tries to work up the nerve to go outside to find the pizza delivery woman, who, after admiring the hikikomori's life, decides to quit her job and go become a shut-in herself. Bong depicts our main character's journey, as if he were taking the first steps on the moon. When he goes outside, we discover that a good percentage of the population have become shut-ins. While I enjoyed the film, I do have to say that, while visually precise as Bong always is, it was probably the least surprising of his narratives. That said, he takes a unique approach to the not terribly groundbreaking idea that we all have to get out and live our lives. This idea also seems to set up the too close relationship between the main character and her son in Bong's most recent film.


At first, it seems like "Mother", about an older woman, Hye-ja (in a great performance by Kim Hye-ja), who is forced to play detective to get her son Do-joon out of prison for a murder he did not commit, is a story that reads so generic it may have been a television movie of the week. However, this is where Bong evolves further as a filmmaker, which 10 years into his already diverse career is unique amongst filmmakers in their first decade of work, as he turns his interests from society's monsters to those within each of us. Much like "The Host", his film focuses on a family, except this family only consists of two members who are completely dedicated to one another. Like "Memories of Murder", the movie centers around a heinous crime which results in one character trying to solve a mystery everyone else thinks is solved.

When watching "Mother", I once again appreciated how well Bong Joon-Ho can craft a story. Considering this movie comes out during a time when mind-bending twist endings are all the rage, how Bong shapes the narrative almost seems radical. There is one revelation right in the middle of the film that forces you to see the central relationship between the mother and her son much differently, while the narrative turn near the end of the film is almost shocking in how completely logical it is. Not once did I ever feel the turns in the story were just designed to manipulate the audience, but actually happens due to the myopia of certain characters. This was the ending I thought about when I took apart the logic of "Shutter Island" over a month ago.

Though, once again, Bong does not resist taking a few extra jabs at the incompetence of the South Korean police department, he actually moves away from greater social commentary to examine how far we are willing to go for our family, an idea he also dealt with in "The Host". It is a given that there is no one Hye-ja loves more than her son, but, by the end of the film, due to certain revelations, it becomes important for her to prove this by doing anything to protect him. Without giving the ending away, I will say that it is a genuinely disturbing one that, oddly, provokes some level of empathy for a woman who clearly loves her son this much. You cannot deny the extremity of her devotion, though her actions make you question what kind of person she is.

"Mother" suggests Bong Joon-Ho has shifted his focus inward, as it almost reminded me of the moral and ethical quandaries of fellow South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook. This is actually the first Bong Joon-Ho film to be more outwardly stylistic (this is his first film shot in 2.35:1), employing dynamic widescreen compositions and noirish lighting. He often shoots his central character walking as a spec on a landscape, deceptively showing her as frail old woman fighting something bigger than her. It still has the odd tonal shifts of Bong's previous films, though they seem more like relief from the heavy storyline. The film begins with a strangely beautiful moment when Hye-ja seems to be dancing out in the middle of a field, practically acknowledging a camera is filming her in a moment of supposed solitude. The one time that Bong in his entire filmography employs restless camera movement is in the final shot of "Mother" and he manages to pull it off brilliantly. If more people had seen the movie, it would be a shot that would be more widely dissected and discussed.

What fascinates me about Bong Joon-Ho are that his films manage to be so varied in subject matter, but are united in theme and an assured directorial style that shows a clear auteurial voice. He manages to do this without retreading shots or plot elements from his previous films. This is a director who experiments within genres to the point where his movies transcend them. Bong represents what I believe more directors should aspire to be as movies move forward into a new decade. We have drawn the battle lines down the middle where the hack directors are one side and the newest potential auteurs who never seem to develop beyond their first couple of films sit on the other side. The reason I consider Bong to be one of the more important directors of our time because his classical sensibility is so unique during these times and he understands how to deliver a satisfying film without pandering to anyone's tastes. How many directors out there can make both a crime procedural and a monster movie come off equally as personal artistic expressions and great entertainments? Bong Joon-Ho is a filmmaker that I believe will last and I look forward to seeing what he will give us over the next decade.

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