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PRINT January 2007

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 irresolvable state of contradiction: If things are like this, efficient garbage collection is impossible, much less social justice; but if things are like this, the individual faces unevenly unattractive options. One can pretend to love the system and move up its fecal ladder, or reject it and starve.

In the society he portrays, Bong finds little place for authentic human feeling; the middle class is comprised of humanoids—people who have merged with their technology and reserved their emotions for consumer objects. He detects the possibility of happiness only among the lower classes, which haven’t been hypnotized by gurgling electronic objects, condominiums, and BMWs they can’t afford. Like Gogol, or Buñuel, Bong treats happiness itself as a momentary condition between calamities rather than as a credible note on which to conclude a film. Even the “happy” ending of The Host feels transient, fraught with potential menace and weighted with prior loss. Bong’s optimism is the Gramscian version.

Shifting atmospheres and startling cuts in Bong’s films recall the anarchy of the earliest cinema, before films became codified into specific types corresponding to genres of theatrical and prose narrative. Unfolding in contemporary space and time, among recognizably modern people, these pictures have an otherworldliness akin to mythology, fairy tales, and fables. That Bong liberally adopts visual tropes from manga, or graphic novels (manhwa, in Korean), contributes to that quality. This pictographic form of storytelling relies less on dialogue than on gestures, facial expressions, and dramatic contrasts of light and shadow; its filmic transposition in spatial design, sequential patterning, and acting resembles the Esperanto of the silents, as certain Western sound movies do—Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), for example, or William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949). Bong’s films are intensely talkative, their dialogue hilariously profane, scatological, ridiculous, and scathing, but we could easily follow them without a sound track.

In interviews Bong cites Clouzot’s Wages of Fear (1953) as having left a deep, early impression on him. He pays casual homage to the Hollywood movies he saw before college, by directors like John Frankenheimer, William Friedkin, and Steven Spielberg; Steve McQueen in Papillon usually gets mentioned as well. (Bong likens his second feature, the somberly satirical Memories of Murder, to the Coen brothers’ Fargo [1996]; the comparison is provocative, indicating how differently directors think about movies than audiences do.) After acquiring a less than encyclopedic familiarity with Hollywood film, Bong absorbed Chinese and Japanese movies by directors such as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Shohei Imamura, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa “with an attitude of studying films, thinking it would be nice to have such films in Korea too.”

Instead of trafficking in the occultism prominent in many contemporary Korean films, Bong highlights the surreal condition of everyday life and the weirdly configured spaces people inhabit and work in, the enclosures and physical obstacles we contrive for ourselves. “I am interested in jobs where you have to work in a small space for a long time,” the director once said in an interview, “like ladies selling lottery tickets, cashiers at stationery stores, or restaurant waitresses, etc. Films never paid attention to characters with such boring jobs. They are never remembered by anyone. I figured there would be a dynamic effect when these people get entangled in strange situations.”

From this perspective Bong Joon-ho has a certain affinity with Fassbinder. Bong’s characters are emphatically working-class. His films illustrate the harsh mechanisms of capitalism. In most movies where characters do “work in a small space for a long time,” that space is never lingered on, and the unrelenting tedium of subsistence work is quickly sidelined. Something more important and compelling has to happen, in more expansive locations, to the working stiff, or else, in the parlance of Hollywood, we have no one to “root for.”

Bong, on the other hand, explores the settings of menial employment with almost fetishistically close attention. Small lives become rich with curious and bizarre details. The director often features characters who aren’t expecting anything, or can’t get anywhere, or have already been flattened by the economic system; those with a modicum of ambition have some inhibitory flaw or inherent weakness that keeps them treading water to keep their heads above it.

In Barking Dogs Never Bite, the ruinous equation of “democracy” with “capitalism”—in the simplest terms, “your money or your life”—is the film’s virtual raison d’être, a subtext impossible to overlook. Barking Dogs encloses the class system in a panopticon-like apartment complex, where some residents are making it, others are making do, and the detritus of society squats in shadows in the basement; the massive building and its uniform, jutting walkways suggest an indifferent housing plan thrown up during a building boom. Its social microcosm has, in fact, been installed in a bunker of defective materials. The sham construction haunts the structure in the form of the ghost of “Boiler Kim,” a repairman killed accidentally in a confrontation with the developers, who sealed up his body between two walls near the boiler.

The protagonist of Barking Dogs, Yoon-ju, is an underpaid college lecturer who lives in the building with his pregnant wife. He elicits immediate sympathy, faced with the corrupt facts of life: To obtain a professorship, he must give the dean a $10,000 bribe—money he doesn’t have. Bong casts Yoon-ju in an ambivalent light. Played by the remarkable Lee Sung-jae (Art Museum by the Zoo [1998], Attack the Gas Station [1999], and Public Enemy [2002]), the lank, delicate-featured Yoon-ju incarnates the stressed-out Everyman at the mercy of the money system. His abjection encourages us to overlook his self-absorption and impacted rage.

Yoon-ju’s financial dilemma is a symptom of the same corruption that built the apartment complex, an intrinsic part of a post-Confucian society that rewards dishonest dealings. At the same time, it provides insights into Yoon-ju’s character. His ethical sense is ruffled by the bribe, but his main concern is how to raise the money. He also worries about getting caught.

A third, cautionary implication of the bribe is presented when a friend who urges Yoon-ju to seize the opportunity relates what happened to the last person who paid off the dean for a professorship. As the friend describes the dean plying his new protégé with liquor, Yoon-ju visualizes the scene: The young man staggers into the subway heading home; as he vomits onto the tracks from the edge of the platform, a train knocks his head off. Later in the film, on his way to deliver the bribe, Yoon-ju fantasizes glugging with the dean and then being decapitated himself—a karmic, retributive consequence of the bribe. (Such imaginary events appear in Bong’s films without any stylistic brackets to distinguish them from “reality”; in The Host, for example, a missing girl magically appears at her family’s table, where everyone feeds her the choicest bits of their meal, acting as if her inexplicable presence were in no way remarkable.) A more tangible effect of the moral dilemma and practical difficulties posed by the bribe is stress, compounded by Yoon-ju’s strained relations with his wife, who initially seems overbearing and abrasive. Gradually, the film’s sympathies tilt in favor of this pregnant working woman married to a petulant, grown-up child (who even sleeps in the fetal position, as if envying the uterine security of his unborn baby).

Yoon-ju is essentially passive: He lacks, on the one hand, the will to accept the career failure that will come if he doesn’t bribe the dean and, on the other, the Nietzschean perversity to embrace the über-values that would make the bribe “nothing.” Instead, he rationalizes his inevitable capitulation by telling himself, “When I’m a professor, I won’t take bribes.” A weak man, we might say, yet because his weakness stems from a certain revulsion at the demeaning compromises of adult life, he retains a degree of likability.

If the bribe lies at the film’s moral center, it is a petty grievance of urban life that sets the main plot in motion. Annoyed by the constant barking he hears emanating from somewhere in his building, Yoon-ju “retaliates.” He snatches a neighbor’s dog and, after botched attempts to throw it off the roof and hang it from a ceiling pipe, he locks the hapless shih tzu in a wardrobe stored in the building’s basement. A chain reaction of unintended consequences ensues.

Like the bribe, the dog has multiple meanings. Among other things, it serves to interlace Yoon-ju’s story with that of Hyun-nam (Bae Du-na), a clerical worker in the building’s management office. The office bores her. She cleans it, refills the watercooler, does the accounts, stamps papers. She takes on the task of putting up a little girl’s lost-dog posters just to get outside, visiting an overweight friend who runs a variety store on the building’s ground level. (Go Su-hee, who plays the friend, is the unforgettable lesbian prison bully in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and a formidable comedienne.) The cramped refuge behind her store counter is a “small space” that becomes its own little world—as do the police station basement in Memories of Murder and the interior of the snack stand in The Host.

Meanwhile, Yoon-ju has realized that he locked up the wrong dog and surreptitiously witnessed, while hiding inside the now-empty wardrobe, an old janitor turning the pooch into stew. Unfazed by his mistake, Yoon-ju contrives to snatch the “right” dog from an elderly tenant. Dressed in a red pullover and matching cap, he pitches the old lady’s Chihuahua off the roof, an act Hyun-nam witnesses through binoculars from the opposite wing of the complex. She pursues him but collides with a suddenly opened apartment door. (Indeed, the film’s protagonists don’t actually meet until an hour and a half into the story, when Yoon-ju turns up at the convenience store to make copies of his own lost-dog poster—and even then Hyun-nam doesn’t realize he is the man she saw snuff the Chihuahua.)

The dramaturgy of the chase (particularly the stiff, exaggerated scything motions of Yoon-ju’s arms), the morphology of the terror-stricken expressions that pass across Yoon-ju’s face as he hides in the basement wardrobe, and, later, a dribble of blood from his nose when he learns that the old woman whose dog he killed has died of grief, are all manifestations of manga iconography, in the service of a tangled but unmanga-like plot. Bong turns the story on its head when Yoon-ju’s wife, craving an affection he doesn’t give her, brings home a toy poodle of her own, which Yoon-ju quite innocently loses while walking it outside a nearby park, when a cloud of pesticide is blithely dispersed through the vegetation.

The inevitable encounter between Yoon-ju and Hyun-nam occurs too late for Barking Dogs to degenerate into that loathsome genre “romantic comedy.” Hyun-nam, an innocent, high-spirited soul, is a plausible antidote to Yoon-ju’s fretful, bottled-up neuroticism. But “what might have been” is an ambiguous speculation at best. What we see are two people heading in different directions who pause briefly in the same place. Hyun-nam loses her job because of her empathy for others; Yoon-ju will be rewarded for his selfishness.

Near the end of the film, a drunken Yoon-ju, returning late at night from delivering the bribe, encounters Hyun-nam on the street and makes a sodden, gingerly flirtatious overture. But then he is overcome by a need to confess. Suddenly running away he calls back to her, “Doesn’t this remind you of anything?” his bent arms slicing the air, finally prompting her recognition of the man she chased through the housing complex. When she catches up with him, she says gently, “One of your shoes is missing,” and walks back to get it, as he slumps exhausted—physically, emotionally, morally—at the curb. This is, perhaps, the most complicated moment in Barking Dogs Never Bite. Hyun-nam’s friendly return of the shoe, like her earlier rescue of Yoon-ju’s wife’s missing poodle, is a disinterested act of kindness (indeed, of forgiveness), something that will never occur in the world Yoon-ju has just secured a place in.

Bong’s fictions record moments of a civilization in flux. The Confucian values woven into Korean life for a thousand years persist in the primacy of family relations and in the sense of all Koreans as part of a single kinship system, but war, politics, and the artificial grafting of technological modernity onto an insular, agrarian culture have jumbled ancient customs, rendered the traditional moral code quaint, and produced the abundant inequities and absurdities underwriting the contemporary social order so mordantly satirized in Barking Dogs Never Bite.

Bong’s follow-up feature, Memories of Murder, reprises a slightly earlier period of “modernization,” when serial killing made its South Korean debut. Serial murder is often depicted as an urban phenomenon, but even in America it occurs mainly in the heartland, where concealing bodies and crossing legal jurisdictions require little more than a car. The first such killings in Korea began in 1986, in rural Gyeonggi Province, on the outskirts of a small city called Hwaseong. The city itself is never really pictured in Memories of Murder, though the film spends a lot of time in its police station and a large factory complex figures importantly in the action. Bodies turn up not in Dumpsters and underpasses but in drainage ditches, culverts, and fields alongside dirt roads, out in farm country.

The murders all occur on rainy nights, and the film capitalizes on vistas of gorgeous, deep green darkness, watery mist and glistening vegetation, morning skies quilted with clouds, and landscapes in which near things appear set at vast distances from each other. Bong’s camera fixes space at disorienting angles—diagonal overhead views, dizzying pans of curved ramps, long shots of indistinct objects, and so on. Open space is at times dilated, at others, foreshortened. Evocative of manga panels, the director’s sequences emphasize the claustral and/or agoraphobic qualities of homes and offices, stores and institutions, the scale of people in relation to the architecture that surrounds them.

Bong intended his second film to act as a reminder of a repressed recent past and of the actual murders, still unsolved, on which it is based. The movie’s humor is much more brutal than that of Barking Dogs, emphasizing the doltishness and almost reflexive cruelty of the investigators and the bleak atmosphere of the dictatorship’s waning years: Nationwide blackouts for civil-defense drills and diversions of police units to quell demonstrations help the killer pick off his victims with ease. The investigators, for their part, waste eons of time battering suspects and even physically attacking one another.

The central figure in Memories of Murder, the provincial detective Park Doo-man, is played by one of the finest actors anywhere, Song Kang-ho (Bad Movie [1998], Joint Security Area [2002], Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance [2002]). Park is a strutting lump of hubris, a mixture of hard-boiled clichés and obstinate ignorance, who finds he is suddenly teamed with a Seoul detective whose professional methods are diametrically opposed to his own. The two cops can’t stand each other. Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) works from documents and empirical evidence, while Park relies on “instincts” he doesn’t really possess, hauling in suspects on the strength of idle gossip. Park’s junior officer is a vicious punk who tortures confessions from a mentally disabled boy and from a factory worker caught wanking in the woods; Park himself subtly coaches these battered innocents in details of the crimes that “only the killer could know”—only to have his trumped-up cases deflated by Seo’s irrefutable deductions. Park resorts to consulting a shaman and visiting bathhouses in search of “hairless men” (as the victims were raped and no trace of the killer’s pubic hair was found); Seo’s more scientific approach proves equally useless. Neither detective seems excessively well trained or even suited for his job. The one truly promising lead is discovered by a female officer, whose clue is fatuously dismissed by Park but seems, in fact, the most likely key to the crime.

The case has strikingly different effects on the lead detectives. The murders continue, driving the investigators into sleep-deprived exhaustion and disorientation. As Park confronts the continual failure of his crude methods, he becomes less certain about his rash conclusions, averse to unnecessary violence, aware of his limitations; Seo, who has placed all his trust in forensic proof, starts to break down when the film’s last victim turns out to be a schoolgirl he questioned earlier in the movie. His anger transforms him into what Park was at the outset. He attacks the prime suspect and beats him nearly to death; when Park shows up with DNA evidence disproving the suspect’s guilt, Seo refuses to believe the documents and tosses them on the wet ground. In the film, as in real life, the murders go unsolved, the killer unpunished. (There is an understated allegorical component to the film, as the crimes of the dictatorship were likewise never brought fully to light but remain suppressed memories.)

When I first saw Bong’s new film, The Host, at the New York Film Festival last October, I recovered a long-dissolving hope for the future of movies. (Years of Hollywood tripe and the ludicrous banality of American “independent film” have spoiled the appetite for cinema; happily, America isn’t the world, even though most Americans think it is.) I had heard about this crowd-pleasing Korean monster flick shortly after its premiere at Cannes, 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. Here the cityscape so noticeably absent from the image-world of Memories of Murder dominates. The film’s frenetic action seems to encompass large quadrants of Seoul, but the urban matrix is actually compressed into synecdochic fragments: a glittering skyline behind the river, a small block containing a dry-cleaning establishment opposite an office tower, the banks of the Han River and traffic underpasses, a short patch of freeway, the interstices of a bridge, and miles of the city’s labyrinthine sewer system.

The eponymous figure of this film is, ostensibly, the giant mutant amphibian produced when the US military dumps a vast quantity of formaldehyde into the Han River. The title is ambiguous, though, as South Korea itself could be considered the “host”—of the American military, on the one hand, and of viral global capitalism, on the other. But the most energizing, raucous aspect of this film isn’t its “message,” despite the highly original way it is transmitted, but Bong’s ingeniously fresh approach to “science fiction”: The Host plays up ecological disaster, military insanity, and the stupid side of technology in the most casual way imaginable. (To cite one recurrent motif, nobody’s cell phone ever seems to work right.) The startlingly timed appearances of the lumbering, somewhat cretinously single-minded monster (which has problems with projectile vomiting); the endless needling among the film’s familial protagonists; their all but clueless yet intrepid battle with the abominable tadpole; and their sudden unanimity when scrambling away from police and soldiers—all these elements thrown together unexpectedly conjure hair-raising suspense and comic relief at the same moments.

When the deformed, acrobatic monster first appears, it attacks a large crowd of people picnicking on the riverbank where Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), his daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), and his father, Hie-bong (Byun Hie-bong), live in the back of a trailer (the front part is the food stand they operate to eke out a meager living). During this spectacular rampage the creature devours several people and mutilates several others. Gang-du gets separated from Hyun-seo, whom the creature snares with its tail before making a long leap into the river, splashing down amid duck- and swan-shaped paddleboats, and finally emerging on the opposite shore, where it ingests the girl whole.

The official response to the crisis is predictably hostile to its victims: Mourners who gather at an auditorium (where they set up impromptu shrines to the dead, of the sort familiar to anyone who visited Lower Manhattan in the weeks and months after September 11, 2001) are teargassed and herded into quarantine; fumigation companies seize the opportunity to compete for government contracts; the US military promotes the myth of a “virus” spread by the creature, in order to conduct medical experiments on the survivors and to test America’s latest biological weapon, “Agent Yellow.”

Gang-du, who has been forcibly quarantined by South Korean health officials, receives a barely audible cell phone call from Hyun-seo, who has been regurgitated by the monster into an inescapable culvert in the sewers, where the beast is storing its “catch.” As the authorities refuse to believe him, Gang-du and his family escape medical custody and turn to the Mafia to arm themselves, entering the forbidden zone disguised as fumigators to search for the missing child in the sprawling maze of Seoul’s cloaca.

The Host has a magical look, taking place mainly at night within sight of the bruise-blue river and in dark metallic spillways of ankle-high water, the color schemes of deep blue and gray juxtaposed with the glaring morgue lighting of hospitals and laboratories; actors are shown through scrims of beaded water, through curtains of opaque plastic, and in spaces carved in momentary flashes by the strobelike wobbling of flashlight beams. Bong makes abundant use of fog and slow-spreading trails of dense vapor, culminating with the release of an Agent Yellow bomb, from what looks like a floating amusement-park fixture, into the middle of a mass protest against the deployment of Agent Yellow near the river’s edge.

The Host depicts a family of ostensible losers whose habitual squabbles wax and wane in inverse proportion to whatever threats from authority figures present themselves. Faced with anything wearing a uniform, the family becomes a united front. While the agencies of power fail miserably to protect the vulnerable and, indeed, welcome disaster as a tool for enriching themselves and asserting control over people’s minds, usurping the individual’s autonomy, this film’s band of fuckups achieves a strange and deeply moving goofball heroism. A film that will resonate with audiences anywhere within reach of the mass media during America’s “War on Terror,” The Host is Bong Joon-ho’s most complete statement thus far about the world we inhabit—and his most beautiful one as well.

Gary Indiana is a writer and artist living in New York.