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Folks, it’s not often I get to say this, but watch out for Joon-ho Bong (stop snickering, Cheech). The Korean director most recently made the critically-hailed monster movie (yes, you’re reading that correctly) The Host, which actually played at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. I had the good fortune to catch The Host a while back, and was trying to think of a good angle to take on it, since I wasn’t quite as wowed by it as most critics were.
Still, it did prompt me to bump up Bong’s previous film, Memories of Murder (it’s not the Lifetime original movie it sounds like, trust me) to the top of my Netflix que. And boy am I glad I did.
But let’s start with a little more about The Host, which you might still be able to find in a few theatres, or on video in a few weeks. The movie follows the Park family, who run a snack bar by the Han River in South Korea. There is Grandpa Hee-bong, his three children: youngest son Nam-il, a college graduate who can’t find a job, daughter Nam-joo, an archer on the national team, and eldest son Gang-du, who is a single father raising a teenage daughter, Hyun-seo. Gang-du appears to be mildly retarded and falls asleep with such frequency that it borders on narcolepsy, something Hee-bong attributes to malnutrition while he was a child. Gang-du’s wife left him a long time ago, and so the family rallies together to help give Hyun-seo a good life, even if they bicker and fight like families from any country.
Many reviews have pointed out, correctly, that the family dynamic here bares a startling resemblance to Little Miss Sunshine, except that, instead of rising above their petty differences to get Hyun-seo to a beauty pageant, they must do so to save her from an enormous monster that leaps out of the river and rampages through a crowd, killing a lot of people and taking Hyun-seo back to its lair to snack on at a later time. Critics hailed the characters and thematic development, but if you ask me, what really sets this movie apart is that initial attack by the monster. Too often, American monster movies resort to POV shots and ridiculously fast editing for the first two acts to avoid showing us the monster. Filmmakers defend this by pointing to Jaws, while ignoring the fact that a) Jaws is over thirty years old now, b) your script isn’t that good, and c) we came to see the monster, so quit jerking us around. Producers defend it by saying its cheaper to do the movie this way.
Well, finally, The Host is a monster movie that gets it right. Not twenty minutes in we get the monster full on, in daylight, in long, sustained takes, plowing mercilessly through a crowd of people. The special effects, while not perfect, are still exceptional, and the music by Byung-woo Lee makes it a pulse-racing scene. The monster itself (created by an American doctor forcing a Korean assistant to pour formaldehyde down a drain that leads to the Han river- which is based on a true event) is appropriately alien, moves equally well in water and on land, and can hang upside from a bridge and uses its tail to swing in remarkable ways.
In short, the monster is really cool. And like I said, that’s what we’re really there for.
I had problems with the family relationship and some of the plotting, though. There’s a very odd scene in which the family believes that Hyun-seo is dead, and have gathered at a memorial to everyone killed in that initial attack. It devolves into a mix of sobbing, fighting, and pratfalls that border on slapstick; it’s not at all clear to me how Mr. Bong wants us to feel about the scene. In fact, much of the humor feels misplaced to me. And the introduction of Nam-joo’s archery skills is one of those “gee, I wonder if that’ll come in handy later” moments.
But the acting is uniformly good, and at the end of the day, Bong is able to deliver a more satisfying monster movie than any American filmmaker has made since… well… Jaws.
Better still, though, is Mr. Bong’s 2003 movie Memories of Murder. I remember reading a few decent reviews of this when it came out, and thinking it was something I should check out. It was already on my Netflix que when I saw The Host, but it was somewhere around 200th on the list. So I thought, before writing a piece on Host, I should have a look at this.
With so little publicity or fanfare surrounding it, I usually go into an obscure Asian thriller like this expecting mediocre production values, acting, and dialogue. I’m looking for promise, you know? Style. Memories exceeded every one of my expectations.
By a lot.
First off, the film looks terrific. The cinematography by Hyeong-gyu Kim is elegantly composed and every shot is perfectly framed. The whole production is just top-notch; I thought it looked even better than Host.
In many ways, this film is at least the equal of, and maybe better than, Zodiac. It tells the true story of a serial killer in rural South Korea in 1986, and the two detectives charged with capturing him. One, Det. Park Doo-Man (Host‘s Song Kang-ho), is a local accustomed to beating confessions out of suspects instead using his brain. The other, Seo Tae-Yoon, is on loan from the larger city of Seoul and prefers more intellectual police work. Both are endlessly frustrated by their lack of resources. Early on in the film, Det. Park finds a footprint near a body that almost certainly belongs to the killer, but is unable to stop a farmer from driving his tractor over it before they can make a cast or even snap a photograph.
Over the course of their investigation, which is lengthy, Park and Seo essentially pass each other on the moral ladder, with Park learning to use his brain from his partner while Seo gives into his frustration and nearly kills a suspect near the end. Thanks in large part to the performances (Song Kang-ho in particular is just phenomenal), both remain largely sympathetic, and the story is riveting as it unfolds from their perspectives.
Mr. Bong doesn’t have the same obsessive eye for period detail that Fincher brought to Zodiac, but he does a remarkable job of giving the film a sense of time and place. The events begin right before the first democratic elections in South Korea, and when the President rolls through the small town, he is met by protestors throwing rocks. The town is also subject to civil defense drills during which everyone must clear the roads and turn off all their lights. It’s kind of surreal to find such events taking place in the background of what otherwise feels like a sharp American thriller.
This American feel is due in no small part to the influence of American films on Mr. Bong. I’m used to seeing the influence of Asian directors on people as diverse as Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino, but it is only lately that I have noticed the reverse to be true as well, most notably in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, which I enjoyed immensely. Here, the relationship between Park and Seo is like an amalgam of Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in Seven and Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in In The Heat of the Night. While familiar, it works very well. There are other scenes, too, that seem a tip of the hat to Silence of the Lambs. And I would cite Zodiac as a stylistic influence if Memories hadn’t been made two years earlier. Still, the resemblance between the two films- in all the right ways- is staggering, up to and including a very ambiguous and haunting ending. None of this is brazen or forced, mind you, but it gives the whole film a feel of artistic professionalism that makes it endlessly entertaining. Mr. Bong is not a young filmmaker searching for a voice or style, as I expected, but a fully formed and confident artist, able to strike the perfect balance between artistic insight and suspenseful entertainment.
Hell, the more I write about it here, the more I admire the film. I may have to watch it again this weekend. Like I said, Memories is available on Netflix (and if you’re reading this column, you should already be on Netflix or Blockbuster or something; if not, you’re missing out) and I can’t recommend it enough. Get over your fear of subtitles. The Host is also definitely worth your time, and is still playing in a few theatres. I’m sure it’ll be available on video soon enough. And just an fyi, Universal has already bought the remake rights. I’m of the opinion that remakes can go either way, but you may want to see the original before that one comes out. Unless they get Joon-ho Bong to direct it; then you should see both.