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Category Archives: Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon Ho has a new movie out – that is always an event to look forward to. His previous “Mother” was outstanding, and “The Host” was a very very strange variation on the “monster comes down to haunt a city” topic – strange in a very relaxed way, as if the extra-ordinariness of the event is a mere side note.

And this is what links The Host to “Snowpiercer”. We have an extraordinary situation, outlandish in its eccentricity: the world has frozen over in a freak accident after some well-intended weather manipulation. Now what’s left of civilisation is huddled up in a high-speed train that circles the planet. Nobility and working class, spa cars and slavery work included. There is not too much discussion about the practicality of the arrangements, but the tone is rather one of “let’s assume this could be plausible”. Of course there is dissatisfaction and rebellion in the train’s rear end, of course there is a military-like suppression of all such rebellion with whatever violent means is necessary. It is not really clear what the elite class gains from their survival and segregation of the poor class, but maybe that lack of clarity is always present in segregated societies.

But then they rise, the army of the misfits… under the intellectual leadership of John Hurt, no less, who is one of those actors I am always very very  happy about seeing, and who I am always very very confused about seeing, because I keep thinking he died decades ago. Widely exaggerated, he’s still around and saves half of the film through his presence. Of the other half, a third is saved on the other end of the train by Tilda Swinton, who must have had the time of her life playing the … liaison officer between the train’s front and rear end. This is over the top in all possible manners, think Willy Wonka high in speed, and on a high-speed train, as it is. Lovely teeth, too.  Song Kang-ho gives the cool and wicked Korean nerd criminal, Ed Harris the evil leader coat, but when it comes to fighting the just fight, it is Chris Evans who has to do the heavy lifting. Maybe not the best choice amidst all this acting nobility, he comes across as a bit of a generic action hero figure.

As a romping and stomping action drama, with a bunch of outlaws fighting their way through a very long train, this actually works most of the time. The narrow confines of the train structure allow for a lot of vertical kinetic energy, with very little place to hide (unless you find some fat people in sauna cubicles). The choice of occasionally cutting to an outside perspective on the train is not the best one, as the whole winter landscape and cgi snow effect department was not quite up to the task. It actually conjured some fond memories of much better and dramatic train sequences, such as in particular in the more recent “Transsiberian” and the more mature but insurmountable “Runaway Train”  (ohhhh… have to watch that one again, and soon!)

What happens on the train stays on the train, as they say, and what is on the train makes for some very solid and dense atmospheric action cinema!

Memories of Murder

Let’s continue my Bong Joon-ho mini-marathon. Murders happen, pretty girls get abused and slaughtered, the village police is overwhelmed with the task of finding the murderer. And it happens again, and again. They capture suspects, they torture them a little bit, they get a couple of confessions, but new evidence keeps showing up indicating that they got it wrong. The quest becomes a nightmare, getting at the police force, turning the public against them.

This is Zodiac, Korean village style, with a police officer at the heart of the investigation who does not have the means his American counterpart would have (actually, they even have to send evidence to the US, as DNA analysis in Korea’s late 1980’s had not been advanced enough), and who is not heroic enough to serve as a centerpiece of a crime thriller. That’s because “Memories of Murder” is not a crime thriller. It is more a tableau of small-town Korea, and even when big things happen, everything stays small. It’s a more humane version of what an American film would look like. People are caught in their hierarchies, in their social contexts, in their need to please the boss, the media, the neighbours or the restaurant owner. They do not shy away from violence in a way that is unpleasant to watch when it comes from the good cops, and in this it is also a depiction of the social system these people live in in pre-democractic Korea. Politics play in the background, with police forces unavailable because they have to smother a workers’ demonstration in a neighbouring city, big changes behind the horizon that do not yet affect local life.

Bong focuses, I learn in part three of my Bong-athon on people, not on events. The way he can set free a rubber monster on Seoul, or a mass murderer on this small town, provides him with the plot he needs to drive his characters through the film. What he is interested in, however, is not the monster or the murderer, he likes the people populating the scene, the good ones and the bad ones.


Damn, why was this film sitting on my shelf for such a long time? I know, because I started watching it, and really hated the titular character, an over-protective mother of a rather dumb boy who gets entangled in some police shenanigans  They have an odd relationship to say the least, verging on the uncomfortable, sleeping together, allowing the bad cops to make all kinds of rude jokes about what else is happening in that household (and I can’t blame them). The boy gets too close to a girl after one night of drinking away his sorrows, and she ends up dead. Did he kill her? We don’t know, but we assume that he did not, and that he becomes part of a crime story that is way over his slightly dumb ahead. The mother goes at great lengths to protect him, she follows up and investigates, while the police are satisfied to have found the perfect murder suspect.

This is all in an early setting. What makes this Bong Joon-ho film more than one of the odd Korean cop flics is that it fluctuates between oddball comedy, with dumb cops and dumber suspects, the mother character who is dedicated to not give way, and the fabulous visuals of Bong and his DP Hong Kyung-pyo. When you have settled in comedic feeling, you will be thrown back with queasy scenes showing the desperation and solitude of the protagonists. When you think you have reached the point of hardball police procedural, you will get some slapstick thrown into your face. I remember that the same feeling of a director completely uninterested in categories and genres was what I loved about “The Host”. Is this Bong’s specialty? I am very motivated to check out his other movies now…

The Host

Following some ruthless neglect in an American lab, a river monster evolves in Seoul, eating its way through the population. Some are only being carried away to experience some regurgutation in a sewr system. One of them, little whatever her name was, has an older brother, and his mission is to fight the monster and get the baby-sister back.

Another case of strange realism in a not very realistic overall setting. The monster is well done, and is trotting through the scenery like a big dog off the leash. Very unspectacular in its way, and very convincingly done, including the way the city and the people react to it, like an alligator on the loose, just bigger. Much bigger, actually. The family setting is affectionately done, with them running a little kiosk on the riverside, the son a loser, the other one – … as well. They all love the baby girl, but then again she gets eaten a lover of his sister, the father (was it the father? I watched it some time ago…) a strange character guiding them through life. It is all more of an upscale rubber monster movie without rubber monster, and it is somehow fun to see how much of the Godzilla charm comes through the bad effects. With good effects, those films change their charm completely! Very strange… but good entertainment once you get over the out-of-place realism.

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