The Best of Korean Cinema #5 – Joon Ho-Bong (part two)
First things first, apologies for the delay with the latest iteration of this article detailing the best of the Korean New Wave. Let’s get back into this Korean article. In which we look at the Korean new wave, from the nastier and more misogynistic movies from Korea’s provocative director Kim Ki-Duk to musicals, Korean musicals are something of a unreal proposition. Now without any further preamble or distractions, here is part two of the look into the work of Joon Ho-Bong.
2006, South Korea
The Monster Movie was a huge icon of the 1950s and 1960s, now not so much. Most movies of this distinction have been distilled into pure horror films, more interested in the violence and the gore in the man vs. nature situation than anything subversive that the lost genre was renowned for. The Host is Joon Ho-Bong’s third film and his second collaboration with Korean actor extraordinaire Kang Ho-Song and two actors from earlier film Barking Dogs Never Bite. In the opening scene Scott Wilson cameo’s as an American scientist who demands his Korean understudy to pore gallons upon gallons of formaldehyde down a sink thereby causing a huge aquatic monster that appears to be part fish, part frog to appear wreaking death and chaos along the Han River. The science may be bunkum, but that small crystal of an idea was formed with the McFarland Incident in 2000 when someone discharged 470 bottles of formaldehyde into the Han River.
Like the best creature features, whether it is Godzilla or Them!, The Host is about the people and not the monster. The people in question are one family whose youngest member is kidnapped in a fantastically shot sequence where the monster obliterates a picnic site by the river. What that means for the film is this family made up of Boon regulars incurs the wrath of the Korean government while attempting to find the missing daughter. Even though they are many well realized shots with the monster hunting people, the true monster is man. Whether this is expressed through the absolute ineptitude of the Korean/American running the containment area or the disturbing depths they go to in keeping their inability to control this monster secret. It would be a long and arduous task to find a film with a frontal lobotomy isn’t a great source of horror. Here that horror is compounded by a scathing satire of Korean politics.
Such is the strength of Joon Ho-Bong as a director that he have scenes of incredible violence, implied or otherwise, being bedfellows with broad slapstick humour and satire of the Korean government. Tonal inconsistency may be a recurring theme in Korean cinema, but very few people can do it as well as this man. It’s made much easier when you have an actor like Kang-Ho Song who makes everything look easy. Everything works, whether it is the emotional beats about the family and their search, the satire, the comedy, the monster movie values. It may be true that the American actors, other than Scott Wilson, are awful, that is something that comes up again and again with Korean directors. Yet The Host always rallies through. The sense of humour may be far more accessible than any of his other work, but you should never let that distract from a film that is firing on all cylinders, a film that entertains so resoundingly.
Joon Ho-Bong’s third film has one of the biggest box-offices in Korean cinema. Imagine such a world, where a character led monster movie by a director with talent behind the camera and on the page can be a commercial success. In the west the great successes are derivative comic book movies and barely strung together sequences of explosions and leering camera angle, such is truth of Korean Cinema.
Directed by Joon-ho Bong
Written by Joon-Ho Bong and Eun-Kyo Park
2006, South Korea
The recurring themes are really starting to show; the two things that director bong is fascinated by on the evidence of his films are pivotal characters that are mentally deficient and satire of governmental institutes. With Mother, a young man who is at the emotional and intellectual level of a child is accused of killing a local woman. Outraged at this, his mother discovers the depth of her maternal love by investigating what really happened. It’s another murder mystery, continuing spiritually from Memories of Murder, and like that earlier film he has a lot to say about the police. Although not quite as powerful a social or political satire, he still has plenty to say about the institution. A fascination which recalls the legendary Alfred Hitchcock who also displayed a predisposition towards showing police at their worst. Mother has a small police force with the same flaws as Memories, they look for the easy answer but not because of their circumstances, instead its because of there laziness.
Bong’s fourth film is carried by its lead actor whom the role was written for, the director personally asked the TV actress to do her first film in 10 years. That single minded faith that she was the best person for the role shows as Hye-ja Kim gives a intriguingly complex performance as the titular mother. Kim’s pursuit of the truth brings an unshowy yet commanding performance. A performance which is initiated by opening and dancing in a field. Wild and free in an empty field suggests an eccentricity of someone that may not be as reliable a narrator as one would think. Its not something such a character archetype would do. With that being the case it puts a different spin on the film with repeated viewings, maybe Motherly love supersedes all.
Mother is a fascinating, twisty thriller than invests itself in the milieu of rural Korea through its scores of fully realized characters. It’s a film that manages to be a character study, a severe look at motherhood and the continuation of the director’s fascinations and themes. Some of the twists may not weight up completely, but the labyrinthine intrigue of the film and the refusal to kowtow to genre expectations – usually films like this demand a conspiracy – this is an engrossing watch from a director who continues to reign at the top of his game. Where he goes next after his foray into international waters will be interesting, will he retain his identity of will he succumb to “John Woo-syndrome”?
NEXT – SNOWPIERCER (2013)
Following Kim Jee-Woon and Park Chan-Wook, Joon Ho-Bong has headed to the states. Based on a graphic novel by Benjamin Legrand, Snowpiercer tells the story of Earth AD 2031, where the passengers in a train are the only survivors on Earth. It’s has a great cast on board, with Jamie Bell, Chris Evans, Alison Pill, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and “old reliable” Kong Ho-Sang. His film has been in the news a lot recently, with revelations that it may be the highest budget for a Korean (co) production, ever, and it was also picked up for distribution by the Weinstein Company. Whatever the outcome, I’ll be at the front of the queue for this one. With Snowpiercer, Stoker and The Last Stand, 2013 is either going to be the year when Korean cinema is brought to the masses.
– Robert Simpson