Three-time Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho makes his statuettes kiss. Legend.
Enlarge / Three-time Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho makes his statuettes kiss. Legend.

Late final 12 months, Ars picked Parasite by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho as the very best film of 2019. Last weekend, so did the Oscars. The solely conclusion that may be drawn from that is that 100 % of Academy voters should learn Ars.

After recovering from our self-congratulatory champagne showers, nevertheless, we have been shocked to see Bong’s earlier films poorly represented in our archives. I’ve come to rectify that, because the South Korean writer-director matches into the Ars mildew of creepy, fashionable, and cutting-edge filmmaking.

My expertise with Korean filmmaking normally…

Because I’m primary AF, my first publicity to Korean cinema was when the jury at Cannes (headed by Quentin Tarantino) awarded Oldboy the 2004 Grand Prix. From there, I watched the remaining of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy and The Handmaiden in addition to making my manner by means of flicks like The Chaser, A Tale of Two Sisters, A Hard Day, Attack the Gas Station!, and Train to Busan. If you’ve got heard one factor about Korean films normally, it is that they’re violent. I am on no account an knowledgeable on each film put out under the 38th parallel, however I am moderately erudite concerning the Korean films that US distributors have seen match to convey stateside within the final couple many years as half of what’s referred to as “New Korean Cinema.” This popularity for violence is partly warranted and partly advertising and marketing.

Lotte World Tower in Seoul is the 6th-tallest building in the world.
Enlarge / Lotte World Tower in Seoul is the Sixth-tallest constructing on this planet.

A fashionable principle is that this cinema of bloodshed is a response to Korea’s fast industrialization over the previous half-century. South Korea gleams with skyscrapers and high-speed rail, its Internet is the quickest on this planet, and its well being care is second solely to Taiwan. (Meanwhile within the United States, our trains are slower than automobiles, our infrastructure is crumbling, medical prices are skyrocketing, and each third article at Ars appears to be about how laborious it’s to get broadband into rural areas.)

But all that got here with a worth. I bear in mind listening to/studying/dreaming, by means of some mixture of Wikipedia and NPR, that South Korea urbanized sooner than any nation in historical past. The social bonds of an agrarian society have been damaged, and the end result was the best suicide fee within the G20. Much of the world has struggled by means of the transition of rural-to-urban-to-globalized, however Koreans appear to have accomplished it on fast-forward, all whereas the menace of destruction from the North has loomed.

Starting within the late ’90s, this sense of dislocation led to a cinema awash in violence that’s each bloody and up-close. Baseball bats, kitchen knives, golf golf equipment. “Hammer time” doesn’t imply dancing. The solely straight-up gunfight I can assume of is in 2010’s The Man from Nowhere, which rivals John Wick for being the Citizen Kane of sad-hot hitmen films.

More subtly, characters usually give off a obscure trace of “faking it,” like they don’t seem to be satisfied they belong on this gleaming world of flip telephones, skinny denims, and skyscrapers. But they positively aren’t satisfied they belong anyplace else.

Another principle is that US distributors of South Korean films merely like violent films with an undercurrent of social dislocation and have artificially created the impression that all Korean films are unhappy and violent as a result of they’ve ignored all of the rom-coms, musicals, and household films. In truth, the Korean films that distributors predicted can be probably the most profitable stateside might say extra about our present second than something on the peninsula.

The vital factor is that both principle will allow you to sound all galaxy-brain at somebody’s Oscar occasion.

… and Bong specifically

But sufficient of my not-at-all-nuanced tackle another person’s tradition. Enter writer-director Bong Joon-ho. His social commentary films really feel like sci-fi, and his sci-fi films really feel like social commentary.

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)

Humans weren’t meant to dwell like bees in mammoth concrete house buildings. In a lot the identical manner that the mansion is a personality in Parasite, the star of Barking Dogs Never Bite might be its house advanced, with its countless hallways, indistinguishable balconies, and forbidding basement. Characters stare out its home windows on the neighboring forest and speak about how they should get out extra; the constructing is not a lot “next door” to the forest as “slowly invading it.” Even when Our Guys get exterior, they’re principally surrounded by oceans of parked automobiles that they by no means drive (these are prepare people). I’m not even positive we see automobiles driving within the background.

In a Hallmark film or a truck business, their woes can be rectified by shifting to a small city or by changing into barrel-chested farmers. But Bong’s first feature-length movie acknowledges that, in a world of almost eight billion souls, these options are too resource- and space-intensive to be scalable. And his working-class protagonists could not afford a Ford F-150, anyway.

Of the various weirdos we meet on this 10-story cinderblock, we principally give attention to a hapless grad scholar and the perkiest bookkeeper within the house’s workplace. He wants cash to bribe a dean so he can develop into a professor, and her job principally consists of making an attempt not to go to sleep at her desk. They cross paths when his neighbors’ yappy little canines go lacking. Little yippy canines are good for Barking Dogs Never Bite: 20,000 years in the past, they have been bloodthirsty pack-hunters however have since been domesticated for a world the place they do not fairly match, and they protest repeatedly by means of their yips and yowls.

Homemade cucumber kimchi.
Enlarge / Homemade cucumber kimchi.

Joanna Opaskar

As befits what is basically a melancholy haunt film, Bong’s route is probably the most laidback that it is ever been, though he does get in some terrific monitoring pictures throughout some foot-chases. Like a downhearted Jacques Tati, comedy comes much less from jokes than from individuals behaving in sad-but-relatable methods. Barking Dogs can also be the primary of Bong’s 4 collaborations with actor Byun Hee-bong, who can greatest be described as having “resting disappointed-by-life dad” face.

Full disclosure: I hadn’t seen Barking Dogs till this previous Wednesday. I would have watched it Tuesday besides I already had swear-to-God plans to make kimchi.

Memories of Murder (2003)

Bong’s sophomore effort was a important and box-office smash. The film relies on a collection of unsolved, real-life murders from about 15 years earlier. The native police are wholly understaffed, under-resourced, and under-prepared for the victims they discover in a ditch. In brief, they don’t seem to be prepared for the courageous new world wherein they’re pressured to inhabit. It’s been a minute since I’ve seen Memories of Murder, however what I principally bear in mind are grassy fields and forest paths with perpetual concrete development happening within the background, as if big-city development employees are perpetually on the verge of digging up extra corpses.

Amidst all of the misplaced proof, tainted DNA, and overwhelmed suspects, our hero detective is satisfied that he can inform who’s mendacity and who’s telling the reality simply by trying them within the eye. (He’s performed by Parasite star Song Kang-ho, bringing his puffy-dad vitality to the primary of his 4 films with Bong). The detective is an analog, folksy holdout in a digital, big-city world. For most the film, I did not imagine him—till Memories ends with him staring on the digicam and, presumably, the true killer, someplace within the viewers.

As for that killer, The Man might have caught up with him final 12 months.

The Host (2006)

The Host may need the very best monster origin story EVAR: a minimum-wage tech whose lab has simply gone out of enterprise is ordered to pour all method of nasty-ass chemical substances down the drain. (The Host’s solely rival on this regard is The Return of the Living Dead.) From there, we go to a struggling, multi-generational working-class Seoul household that is caught between political protesters and, oh snap, a large fish monster on the free. The household finally faces the monster not with cutting-edge, high-tech weapons however with pump-action shotguns and a compound bow. Song Kang-ho and Byun Hee-bong return as unhappy dad and unhappy grandpa, respectively.

Mother (2009)

Mother is a homicide thriller on the determined fringes of society set in a metropolis that appears like a bomb simply went off. I noticed it at a screening hosted by Rice University. So, good job there, Harvard of the South! An unnamed Mother (Kim Hye-ja) hopes to show her troublesome son is harmless of a lady’s homicide, and alongside the way in which, one underfunded social service fails her after one other. The United States is split between those that assume failing social providers want extra funding and those that assume they should not exist in any respect. The police show incompetent and her lawyer is unreliable, so she has to unravel the homicide herself. Whereas a lot of Parasite is clear glass, open areas, and wide-angle lenses, Mother is none of these issues: all the pieces is run down and shot in lengthy lenses in order that our heroes look crushed by their bleak environment.

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