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Fish monsters, barking dogs, and roach patties: The films of Bong Joon-ho

Three-time Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho makes his statuettes kiss. Legend.
Enlarge / Three-time Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho makes his statuettes kiss. Legend.

Late final 12 months, Ars picked Parasite by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho as the very best film of 2019. Final weekend, so did the Oscars. The one conclusion that may be drawn from that is that 100 p.c of Academy voters should learn Ars.

After recovering from our self-congratulatory champagne showers, nevertheless, we had been shocked to see Bong’s earlier movies poorly represented in our archives. I’ve come to rectify that, because the South Korean writer-director suits into the Ars mildew of creepy, fashionable, and cutting-edge filmmaking.

My expertise with Korean filmmaking typically…

As a result of I am primary AF, my first publicity to Korean cinema was when the jury at Cannes (headed by Quentin Tarantino) awarded Oldboy the 2004 Grand Prix. From there, I watched the remainder of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy and The Handmaiden in addition to making my manner by way of flicks like The Chaser, A Story of Two Sisters, A Laborious Day, Assault the Gasoline Station!, and Practice to Busan. If you happen to’ve heard one factor about Korean movies typically, it is that they’re violent. I’m certainly not an knowledgeable on each film put out under the 38th parallel, however I’m moderately erudite concerning the Korean movies that US distributors have seen match to carry stateside within the final couple a long time as a part of what’s known as “New Korean Cinema.” This popularity for violence is partly warranted and partly advertising and marketing.

Lotte World Tower in Seoul is the 6th-tallest building in the world.
Enlarge / Lotte World Tower in Seoul is the Sixth-tallest constructing on this planet.

A preferred idea is that this cinema of bloodshed is a response to Korea’s fast industrialization over the previous half-century. South Korea gleams with skyscrapers and high-speed rail, its Web is the quickest on this planet, and its well being care is second solely to Taiwan. (In the meantime in the USA, our trains are slower than automobiles, our infrastructure is crumbling, medical prices are skyrocketing, and each third article at Ars appears to be about how exhausting it’s to get broadband into rural areas.)

However all that got here with a worth. I keep in mind listening to/studying/dreaming, by way of some mixture of Wikipedia and NPR, that South Korea urbanized sooner than any nation in historical past. The social bonds of an agrarian society had been damaged, and the outcome was the highest suicide charge within the G20. A lot of the world has struggled by way of the transition of rural-to-urban-to-globalized, however Koreans appear to have completed it on fast-forward, all whereas the specter of destruction from the North has loomed.

Beginning within the late ’90s, this sense of dislocation led to a cinema awash in violence that’s each bloody and up-close. Baseball bats, kitchen knives, golf golf equipment. “Hammer time” doesn’t imply dancing. The one straight-up gunfight I can consider is in 2010’s The Man from Nowhere, which rivals John Wick for being the Citizen Kane of sad-hot hitmen motion pictures.

Extra subtly, characters usually give off a imprecise trace of “faking it,” like they don’t seem to be satisfied they belong on this gleaming world of flip telephones, skinny denims, and skyscrapers. However they undoubtedly aren’t satisfied they belong wherever else.

One other idea is that US distributors of South Korean movies merely like violent motion pictures with an undercurrent of social dislocation and have artificially created the impression that all Korean movies are unhappy and violent as a result of they’ve ignored all of the rom-coms, musicals, and household movies. In reality, the Korean motion pictures that distributors predicted can be probably the most profitable stateside might say extra about our present second than something on the peninsula.

The necessary factor is that both idea will allow you to sound all galaxy-brain at somebody’s Oscar get together.

… and Bong particularly

However sufficient of my not-at-all-nuanced tackle another person’s tradition. Enter writer-director Bong Joon-ho. His social commentary motion pictures really feel like sci-fi, and his sci-fi motion pictures really feel like social commentary.

Barking Canine By no means Chunk (2000)

People weren’t meant to stay like bees in mammoth concrete condo buildings. In a lot the identical manner that the mansion is a personality in Parasite, the star of Barking Canine By no means Chunk could possibly be its condo advanced, with its infinite hallways, indistinguishable balconies, and forbidding basement. Characters stare out its home windows on the neighboring forest and discuss how they should get out extra; the constructing is not a lot “subsequent door” to the forest as “slowly invading it.” Even when Our Guys get outdoors, they’re principally surrounded by oceans of parked automobiles that they by no means drive (these are practice people). I am not even positive we see automobiles driving within the background.

In a Hallmark film or a truck industrial, their woes can be rectified by shifting to a small city or by changing into barrel-chested farmers. However Bong’s first feature-length movie acknowledges that, in a world of practically eight billion souls, these options are too resource- and space-intensive to be scalable. And his working-class protagonists could not afford a Ford F-150, anyway.

Of the various weirdos we meet on this 10-story cinderblock, we principally give attention to a hapless grad pupil and the perkiest bookkeeper within the condo’s workplace. He wants cash to bribe a dean so he can turn out to be a professor, and her job principally consists of attempting not to go to sleep at her desk. They cross paths when his neighbors’ yappy little canine go lacking. Little yippy canine are excellent for Barking Canine By no means Chunk: 20,000 years in the past, they had been bloodthirsty pack-hunters however have since been domesticated for a world the place they do not fairly match, they usually protest recurrently by way of their yips and yowls.

Homemade cucumber kimchi.
Enlarge / Home made cucumber kimchi.
Joanna Opaskar

As befits what is basically a melancholy haunt film, Bong’s course is probably the most laidback that it is ever been, though he does get in some terrific monitoring pictures throughout some foot-chases. Like a downhearted Jacques Tati, comedy comes much less from jokes than from folks behaving in sad-but-relatable methods. Barking Canine can also be the primary of Bong’s 4 collaborations with actor Byun Hee-bong, who can finest be described as having “resting disappointed-by-life dad” face.

Full disclosure: I hadn’t seen Barking Canine till this previous Wednesday. I’d have watched it Tuesday besides I already had swear-to-God plans to make kimchi.

Recollections of Homicide (2003)

Bong’s sophomore effort was a important and box-office smash. The film relies on a sequence of unsolved, real-life murders from about 15 years earlier. The native police are wholly understaffed, under-resourced, and under-prepared for the victims they discover in a ditch. Briefly, they don’t seem to be prepared for the courageous new world through which they’re pressured to inhabit. It has been a minute since I’ve seen Recollections of Homicide, however what I principally keep in mind are grassy fields and forest paths with perpetual concrete building occurring within the background, as if big-city building employees are perpetually on the verge of digging up extra corpses.

Amidst all of the misplaced proof, tainted DNA, and crushed suspects, our hero detective is satisfied that he can inform who’s mendacity and who’s telling the reality simply by wanting them within the eye. (He is performed by Parasite star Tune Kang-ho, bringing his puffy-dad power to the primary of his 4 motion pictures with Bong). The detective is an analog, folksy holdout in a digital, big-city world. For many the film, I did not consider him—till Recollections ends with him staring on the digital camera and, presumably, the actual killer, someplace within the viewers.

As for that killer, The Man might have caught up with him final 12 months.

The Host (2006)

The Host might need the very best monster origin story EVAR: a minimum-wage tech whose lab has simply gone out of enterprise is ordered to pour all method of nasty-ass chemical compounds down the drain. (The Host’s solely rival on this regard is The Return of the Dwelling Lifeless.) From there, we go to a struggling, multi-generational working-class Seoul household that is caught between political protesters and, oh snap, a big fish monster on the unfastened. The household finally faces the monster not with cutting-edge, high-tech weapons however with pump-action shotguns and a compound bow. Tune Kang-ho and Byun Hee-bong return as unhappy dad and unhappy grandpa, respectively.

Mom (2009)

Mom is a homicide thriller on the determined fringes of society set in a metropolis that appears like a bomb simply went off. I noticed it at a screening hosted by Rice College. So, good job there, Harvard of the South! An unnamed Mom (Kim Hye-ja) hopes to show her tough son is harmless of a lady’s homicide, and alongside the best way, one underfunded social service fails her after one other. America is split between those that suppose failing social providers want extra funding and those that suppose they should not exist in any respect. The police show incompetent and her lawyer is unreliable, so she has to unravel the homicide herself. Whereas a lot of Parasite is clear glass, open areas, and wide-angle lenses, Mom is none of these issues: the whole lot is run down and shot in lengthy lenses in order that our heroes look crushed by their bleak environment.

About Peter Opaskar

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