Bong Joon-ho: Korean Cinema Will Never Be The Same Again!
It’s no secret that some of the best genre filmmaking today comes from Asia; or more specifically, South Korea. A whole new crop of directors has shown an obvious affection for genres ranging from horror to westerns, as well as their ability to think outside set boundaries and deliver fresh spins on new conventions. Or to put it another way: they do things that your average mainstream Hollywood filmmaker wouldn’t dare touch with a pole.
Hollywood seems to have taken note: this year alone, three of Korea’s biggest names have made the jump to Tinseltown: Kimm Ji-Woon (I Saw The Devil) attempted to revive Schwarzenegger’s career with 80s throwback The Last Stand; Park Chan-wook, revered far and wide for his “Vengeance Trilogy” (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance) gave us Stoker; and completing the trifecta, Bong Joon-ho is set to release the post-apocalyptic Snowpiercer sometime this year, an ambitious, high-concept international co-production.
Sadly, it’s Bong that got the short end of the stick. To the dismay of genre fans everywhere, Snowpiercer fell into the lap of Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein, and despite the director’s pedigree, an interesting premise (social revolt inside an industrial train traversing a frozen Earth), and the top drawer international cast (Chris Evans, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, and the director’s muse, Song Kang-ho), it was deemed to be too complicated for the fair citizens of Jerkwater, Iowa, which says a lot about how Weinstein feels about his audience.
So, before 20 minutes are shaved off the film, it’s the right time to look back on Bong Joon-ho’s resume and understand why exactly he’s a director on the rise and why his films should be left alone for everyone’s benefit.
Bong first made his mark with the black comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite, followed by the police procedural Memories of Murder, based on an unsolved series of actual crimes. It was the highest grossing film in Korea in 2003, and showed the director’s penchant for mixing stark and uncomfortable imagery with gallows humour.
It wasn’t until 2006 and the worldwide smash of The Host that the director became someone to watch out for. The Cannes Film Festival went wild for this old-fashioned yet at the same time atypical monster movie. Bong understands that the main selling point of these types of films is the creature itself, and he wastes no time in getting to the good stuff: it’s only ten minutes after it kicks off that a monster that looks like a cross between a lizard and a fish jumps suddenly out of the Han River in Seoul and starts devouring everyone in sight.
Compare this high energy opening to, for example, Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake, released a year earlier: before you see the giant ape breaking dinosaur jaws and thumping his chest, you have to sit through an hour of Naomi Watts’ struggling with her acting career, Adrien Brody struggling with his writing, Jack Black struggling with playing a part straight, and Andy Serkis doing a Popeye the Sailor Man impression. Once again, an Asian director took a different route and threw us straight into the action. The monster’s origin is kept simple: it’s not born out of an illegal nuclear bomb tests, and it’s not a government experiment gone rogue; Hershel from The Walking Dead dumps some chemicals in the river and that’s pretty much it.
Bong continues to turn the tables on our expectations: the protagonists are not some gung-ho heroic types coming to save the day, but rather a dysfunctional family made up of Kind Grandpa, Drunken Uncle, Athletic Aunt, and Clumsy Moron Dad who spend as much time arguing as they do hunting down their prey. It’s like putting the cast of Little Miss Sunshine in a Godzilla movie (I swear I thought of that one before seeing it in two other reviews). In the end, The Host is a family drama and a creature feature rolled into one, even taking some potshots at the quintessential “Ugly Americans”, who are pretty much responsible for everything that happens (when it’s not Moron Dad accidentally screwing up).
The Host marked Bong as someone with the guts to mix and match genres and change moods at the drop of a dime. It takes skill to present a scene of heart-wrenching grief over a child’s apparent death and suddenly make it a succession of over-the-top pratfalls and physical comedy, and it works perfectly.
The streak continued with 2009’s Mother, a much more moody and subdued character piece, where a middle-aged matriarch does all she can to clear her mentally disabled son of a murder charge. It’s a classic detective story, only instead of a hardened gumshoe as the protagonist, we have the kindly old lady next door who bakes you cookies running around asking questions and getting into more trouble than she can handle.
Filled with the sort of left-field twists Alfred Hitchcock would have killed for back in the day, Mother is a slow-burn thriller that also focuses on the relationship between mothers and sons, and how the former will go to any lengths necessary to protect her offspring. Once again, Bong contrasts serious scenes of violence with the kind of humour you wonder if it’s okay to laugh at.
And so we come to Snowpiercer, which has already broken box office records in its native Korea and is on the “Most Anticipated” list of many a sci-fi diehard for 2013. One can only hope that Miramax doesn’t butcher it to the point of incoherence. Whatever the case, Bong Joon-ho and his contemporaries are at the forefront of contemporary Asian genre cinema. If their work seems a bit similar, it’s because all three are friends and rabid film buffs who regularly hang out, trade ideas and DVDs, and hit movie theatres together; however, they are taking different paths to carving out their own niches. Their willingness to take risks and make something original out of tried-and-true genre premises makes them all worthy to seek out and discover.