Monday, December 31, 2007

Master Of The Black Comedy

My acquaintance with Korean director Bong Joon-ho's work recently took a kind of backtracking to his first film, Barking Dogs Never Bite. I'd thought the DVD was out of print, until I discovered it is still available on YesAsia, although it quickly becomes out of stock.

Despite it being his first film, Barking Dogs already bears Bong's signature black-comedy style, and shows him to be a filmmaker who painstakingly thinks out the elements within his films. What I found interesting and consistent about him is that he bookends every film, returning to the point where it all started and visually signifying a change, no matter how subtle, that has been instigated by the events previously unfolded.

The premise of Barking Dogs is simple, but its implications are far from that. It's basically about a down-and-out guy, hen-pecked, and at a dead end career-wise, who discovers a dog in his apartment block, incessantly barking and driving him nuts. He goes to find and kill the dog, an action which sets off a series of events involving a motley bunch of offbeat characters, including a couple of (literally) underground lovers of dog-meat!

Bong's opening shot, or series of shots, is usually already an indication of where he's going to be headed with the story. In this case, the protagonist is seen looking out the window of his apartment at the wooded hills, voicing his intention to go hiking up in the mountains. The feeling of claustrophobia and being trapped begins there and never lets up. People are often crowded together, surrounded by things, crowded out, squeezed together until the only way out is to explode. Here, it's ripe for some commentaries on the perils of modern living, and Bong does it with tongue firmly in cheek. He makes some pointed observations about contemporary Koreans, but they could well apply to any other city in the world. That "outer world" in the mountains, is like the unattainable dream of escape, of freedom, that everyone craves. That opening shot is repeated at the end, but something is different by then.

Here's something I wrote about Memories Of Murder and The Host some time ago.


If we are to believe Hollywood and subscribe to its mentality, then it always takes muscle and power to overcome obstacles, and most times, muscle and power are all you need. The swaggering male stereotypes that have emerged out of Hollywood have influenced our expectations and the way we perceive the male ego.

South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho subscribes to none of that, and even subverts the idea that the aggressive male is the epitome of problem-solving and the catalyst in the defeat of danger. When Hollywood does subvert its own formula, as in David Fincher's Seven, the male ego still does retain some power even though a lot of the rage is misdirected and at times impotent.

But Bong's
Memories Of Murder, a far superior serial killer film than Fincher's, takes it many steps further and makes that impotency a running theme and almost a running joke as well. Even the sex in the film is impotent, and all the anger and frustration only fuels the aimlessness and hopelessness of the pursuit of an unknown enemy. Its palpable disdain for authority is almost a send-up of the Hollywood cops-and-bad-guys formula, and makes for great black comedy.

The story of three cops (two country bumpkins and one city slicker) trying to capture a mysterious killer in the countryside is encapsulated in a time of martial law and strict curfews, based on true events surrounding South Korea's first serial killer. The three are sent on a wild goose chase, with every clue leading them no closer to, and no further from, the perpetrator. Bong displays highly impressive storytelling skills, using genre staples only as signposts before leading the audience down some paths not taken.

Now comes The Host, Korea's biggest box-office hit to date. Kim Jong-Il was reported to have praised the film for its anti-American sentiments, but in truth, the film takes a whack at both local and foreign authorities.

A mutant tadpole has risen out of the Han river and is on a rampage along its banks. Kang-du (Song Kang-ho) and his family, along with thousands of other Seoul residents, are taken into quarantine. The Americans take over the handling of the crisis, proclaiming that the monster is carrying a deadly virus. But one unforeseen light of hope leads Kang-du and his family on a rescue mission ... that is, if they can escape quarantine first.

The Host is a lot of things at once - an environmental protest, a family drama, a monster movie, a political satire, a science fiction morality tale. Most of all, Bong holds the common man in a very sympathetic view. The man on the street gets steamrolled by both the monster and the authorities who think they know better. In fact, a lot of the time, everybody hears but never listens, and one such moment in the film, involving a cock-eyed American scientist,is a hilarious surprise.

As in Memories Of Murder, there is again the impotency of male bravado in the face of unknown danger. Power is not with the macho hero (see what happens to the big American military guy, the staple of many a Hollywood monster movie and action flick). At the film's conclusion is a surprise, a sarcastic and almost twisted destruction of the Hollywood archetype , so much so that "monster movie" becomes a terrible misnomer.

And like in Memories Of Murder, Bong once again disallows the genre trappings from overtaking his own sensibilities. Because of this, The Host is full of surprises, apart from Bong's incisive wit and very black humour, and from the get-go, the film takes off running, making you do a double-take on everything you think you've already seen or known.

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