Bong hits the mainstream

Pub date February 27, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review


When I first saw Bong [Joon-ho]’s new film, The Host … I recovered a long-dissolving hope for the future of movies…. I had heard about this Korean monster flick … but nothing had prepared me for the carnivalesque, politically acidic megaspectacle that unspooled, seducing me and the rest of the audience into a state of childlike rapture.

"Gogol in Seoul," by Gary Indiana, Artforum

To inspire "childlike rapture" in Gary Indiana, a wizened contender for the most truthfully caustic novelist and political commentator of our time, one must possess amazing powers as a filmmaker. Amazing powers — of imagination, societal observation, and colorful vérité-based pop symbolism — are exactly what Bong Joon-ho has, in measures that have grown in size and scope with each of his three features to date. Indiana’s recent cover essay on Bong marks the first time in years (if not ever) that a commercial film has taken over the cover of Artforum — just one sign of its subject’s imminent pop art impact. But while Indiana’s excellent piece draws upon Nikolay Gogol, Antonio Gramsci, post-Confucian history, and enthusiasm for the rich pleasures of contemporary South Korean film, it ignores one major stylistic source of The Host‘s ability to induce kidlike joy. With his latest film, Bong announces himself as the heir apparent to Steven Spielberg — an heir who replaces Spielberg’s reactionary tendencies with an acutely observant antiestablishment viewpoint.

It’s easy to see why Indiana would steer clear of citing the man who birthed E.T. He might consider Spielberg the epitome of the "Hollywood tripe" that had just about permanently driven him from movie theaters. If so, he has my sympathy. Within the strange world of film criticism, few phenomena have been more vexing than the penchant of elite East Coast and Hollywood-hooked critics to overlook Spielberg’s cornball antics and project all manner of philosophical profundity onto his flair for spectacle. Is it not fair to assert that, aside from passages of 2001’s A.I. and 2002’s Minority Report, Spielberg has failed to deliver on the promise of his ’70s and early-’80s megamarketable hits?

Filmmakers from outside the United States have a different appreciation of the Spielberg effect — that moment when the adult complexities of movies from the early ’70s gave way to blockbusters. A director such as Japan’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa would pinpoint that change as the moment in 1975 when Jaws generated lines all the way around now-extinct movie palaces. Clearly, from that film through the 1982 summer that brought E.T. and Poltergeist, Spielberg demonstrated a facility for pop imagery that was as potent as Andy Warhol’s, perhaps more resonant, and definitely more lucrative. Lost in his pop dynamism’s wake, however, were infinite degrees of human experience. A case could be made that Spielberg’s brand of humanism is in fact inhumane and in perfect lockstep with a society in which democracy is defined as capitalism.

An isolated viewing of Bong’s first film, the 2000 satire Barking Dogs Never Bite, wouldn’t suggest a predecessor to the young Spielberg. Only Bong’s gift for physical comedy and his eye for everyday pop iconography (such as photocopied missing dog posters) distinguish his debut from likable recent South Korean movies such as Take Care of My Cat, A Good Lawyer’s Wife, and Rules of Dating. Like those movies, Barking Dogs is more naturally multifaceted than Sundance indie drivel. The story line gives a wannabe professor a lesson in class struggle: rather than Marxist platitudes, Yoon-ju (Lee Sung-jae) learns from the street, or more accurately, the subterranean realm Bong often explores. Instead of The Host‘s marauding many-ton guppy, the movie’s beasts are canine and domestic. But there are clear hints of what’s to come in Bong’s career. The director’s eye for bright yellow symbolism and affinity for characters who work in cramped Kwik-E-Marts and offices are already apparent. A shot of a row of cement walls within the basement of the movie’s apartment building will be echoed in The Host by an eerie, signature glimpse of the creature distending its lassolike tail under a bridge to go for another murderous dip.

"Nobody in this country follows rules since the liberation," one character proclaims in Barking Dogs Never Bite, but Bong’s 2003 fact-based follow-up, Memories of Murder, shows that the era of Chun Doo-wan’s dictatorship was certainly no better — equipped with siren calls and an endless variety of misused police force, it’s the perfect oppressive backdrop for South Korea’s first serial killer. Memories seems to obey every basic conceit of serial killer suspense films while enriching and subverting the genre. (The smartest character is a briefly glimpsed female detective whose insight is ignored by the warring male leads.) When Memories had its first SF engagement in 2004, I praised Bong’s ability to fashion a thriller into a societal and political indictment, even likening it to M. At the time I wondered if such praise was too lavish, but now I only regret not noting the influence of the aforementioned Kurosawa, whom Bong has cited as one contemporary. Kurosawa’s peak efforts, 1997’s Cure and the 2001 Japanese version of Pulse, don’t strive for or possess the pop appeal of Bong’s work, but Bong has learned plenty from their maker’s keen critical knowledge of film history — and contemporary madness. Memories is also the first time he proves commercial strictures can be trampoline flexible in terms of revealing individual and group character.

The Host is the Spielberg movie that Spielberg never made, the one where E.T. and the shark from Jaws are fused together into a rampaging tragicomic beast that doubles as an entire country and even a globe overrun by the toxins of US military paranoia. (It’s also a perfect antidote to War of the Worlds‘ abundant US-centric phoniness.) Each member of the film’s core ragtag family, including Bong regulars such as the always endearing Bae Du-na (from Barking Dogs) and the less famous, underrated Park Hae-il (hauntingly fierce in Memories and better in Park Chan-ok’s Jealousy Is My Middle Name), is as nuanced as Homer Simpson–esque protagonist Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), who undergoes wild tortures because he refuses to stop telling the truth. The anarchic hilarity and horror of the creature’s first rampage in The Host are more than matched by Park’s family, whose grieving turns slapstick in an uproarious follow-up scene. One suspects Bong has as many tales as The Host‘s creature has tails. This convert can’t wait to see more of them. *


Mon/5, 6:30 p.m. Memories of Murder; 9:45 p.m. Barking Dogs Never Bite; $9–$11

Clay Theatre

2261 Fillmore, SF

(415) 267-4893