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GOGOL IN SEOUL: THE FILMS OF BONG JOON-HO

Before he began working on The Host, thirty-eight-year-old Korean director Bong Joon-ho had made only two feature-length films: The first was, at the time of its release, a critical and box-office failure; the second, despite its grim true-to-life narrative, was a major hit. Even so, no one could have predicted—indeed, no one did predict—the staggering success of Bong’s third film, a low-budget monster movie that premiered last May in Cannes to rave reviews before going on to become the highest grossing film in Korean history.
 
Godzilla was famously the projection of a postwar Japanese psyche traumatized by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the nameless monster of The Host is likewise the product of environmental disaster at the hands of the American military. But whereas Japanese films of the genre allegorized broadly the horrors of modern technology, The Host is a caustic—and quite specific—critique of American power: The monsters of our creation pose far less a threat to the world than our militarized overreaction to them.
 
In anticipation of The Host’s arrival in American theaters on March 9, novelist and critic Gary Indiana reappraises this small body of work—intriguing for its encoding of deep social commentary in popular genres—that has decisively established Bong Joon-ho as a vital force in the newly resurgent Korean cinema.

The three feature films Korean director Bong Joon-ho has shot to date—Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), Memories of Murder (2003), and his monster- movie masterpiece, The Host (2006)—suggest what Gogol might have done with a movie camera. Bong pictures the absurdity of our time as the mess generated by unlimited idiocy, “the human condition” as an unstable mixture of bad conditioning and decent instincts. His films heap shrewd, witty ridicule on all forms of authority, particularly the military and the police; his work is witheringly hostile to the United States’ presumed guardianship of South Korea and pointedly critical of his country’s family-owned conglomerates and their fascistically intimate relations with government.

In the course of his narratives, Bong progressively raises the ante of ludicrousness, as the problems encountered by his characters reveal the world’s essence as an

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