Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Host

It's been a long, busy quarter. There are a lot of things that I've been meaning to write about - primarily visiting filmmakers Thom Anderson, Billy Woodberry, 17-yr-old videomaker Kyle Canterbury, Leighton Pierce, etc - but I guess I'll just have to move backwards trying to catch up. Final paper season is upon us once again, so I expect I'll be looking for the procrastination-ish outlet and will try to make my way through the backlog.

On Saturday, filmmaker Bong Joon-ho was on campus to present Memories of Murder and his latest film, The Host. I've been a fan of Memories of Murder since I saw it at SIFF several years ago, and agitated for putting it on the NWFF calendar as soon as Palm Pictures announced its dvd release (we had to talk them into it, which a handful of other art house-type cinemas were doing at the same time). Of course, as has been the case for all Korean films given commercial runs in Seattle (in my experience), almost nobody showed up - and that we had to program it during SIFF certainly didn't help. But I don't doubt that the film found a sizable audience through the festival screenings and early arrival import dvds at Scarecrow. It's nice to know that, in the tide of Asian serial killer movies, one of the few I've come across that manages to do something clever and original with the format has found its niche. And The Host will certainly shed more light on it for cinephiles.

Bong spoke after the screening of his "love-hate" relationship with genre, and of his desire to "explode" the conventions of whatever genre he's working in. With both Memories of Murder and The Host, a familiar generic structure provides the set-up while the execution moves along a thin line between parody, social realism, political critique, etc - the films almost perversely refuse to align themselves with or against the genre or the heroes, and the subversion of genre expectations never quite materializes as wholly mocking or as a more serious-minded criticism of narrative conventions. The protagonists in Memories of Murder are almost a classic comedy team of bungling cops, except that their incompetence is dangerous. Perhaps the film's greatest audacity is to avoid the perceived sophistications of a dark, comedic satire; instead, the humor is broad and slapstick-y, while the overall narrative remains grisly and opressive. And the humor is never without complications. Some of the funnier scenes in the film amount to little more than the physical and emotional abuse of a mentally-retarded boy, and the ramifications of the actions, while funny, are never pushed out of the foreground. And in The Host, the most prominent, sustained scene of physical comedy is a mass funeral. (Bong said he particularly enjoyed films that make sudden, drastic changes in tone, offering Jonathan Demme's sublime Something Wild as an example, a statement that I most definitely agree with.)

But Bong's films don't just use genre as a convenient backdrop, nor is it a ploy to get viewers involved with issues that are normally associated with stark pronouncements of cinematic outrage. From his comments after the screening, I gathered that Bong makes a monster or serial killer movie because that's the kind of movie that he likes. The "explosion" of genre he spoke of isn't a desire to do away with it altogether, but to realign the parameters to agree with both what he wants to make and what he wants to see.

The Host is a monster movie in the tradition of 50's Hollywood sci-fi, and it's the sort of movie that Howard Hawks could appreciate. Even more full of goofball, low-brow humor than its predecessor, but also darker and more thrilling. Without resorting to glibness, the death toll's higher, the narrative follows a more traditional path, and there's actually a resolution, of sorts. Bong introduced it by saying that he saw it as a family drama, which it is. There's also, as in Memories, a central awareness of how the political situation impacts the characters, which here translates to logistical incompetence on the part of the Koreans and what appears to be willful, deadly ignorance on the part of the American army. That is, I think, the greatest value of genre to Bong - it allows him to explore, rather inconspicuously, a wide spectrum of subjects. To bring in the US army to a film about a dysfunctional lower-class Korean family would be absurd without the inherent global inclusiveness of a monster film.

About his depiction of the US - which at least one American reviewer was particularly sensitive to in last spring's Cannes reports - Bong claimed that he was not trying to demonize America (or, as he put it in an awkardly poetic neologism: "monsterize). And he's right, in that the Americans get the same broadly comic treatment everyone else in the film does. He's also pretty astute, depicting an exagerrated military response that endangers the local population, all for reasons whose twisted logics serve as justifications in themselves. And while I don't think Bong is directly equating the film's monster (one of the more impressive CG creations I've seen) with American military Imperialism, a visual rhyme between the monster's first appearance and the machine that dispenses the US Army's "Agent Yellow" into a crowd unmistakably underlines the similarity of the two threats.

Bong's films highlight the value of South Korean cinema, which, it seems to me, often attempts to incorporate genres or approaches often held to be contradictory. And it's a cinema that doesn't value glibness, so its exemplary works really do feel challenging in a way that something like Pulp Fiction or Miller's Crossing, thrilling though they may be, don't achieve.

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