I have a new favorite director and his name is Bong Joon-Ho. Over the last 2 months I’ve had the great pleasure of watching 3 of his movies (which he also co-wrote) and I feel compelled to tell you about this great and talented filmmaker. It’s not uncommon to happen across a new director and be impressed by their debut, but I do find it rare to stumble upon someone with a body of work, not just a single film, that ranks so highly after only a decade of making movies. I haven’t managed to get a hold of Bong’s first feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite, or see his segment in the anthology film Tokyo!, but I was completely taken aback by Memories of Murder, The Host, and Mother.
Memories of Murder, based upon the first known serial murders in South Korea, begins when a woman is found in a drainage ditch bound, gagged, raped and murdered. It’s the 80s and the town is small, rural and therefore ill-equipped to deal with such a major crime. Detective Park Doo-Man (Song Kang-Ho) is on the case, joined by big city cop, Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-Kyung). Park thinks of himself as old school and believes instincts will solve the case. Meanwhile, Seo is more cerebral and susses out some patterns and perhaps an MO.
The usual beats and twists of this kind of story pop up very early on and then Bong goes his own way, adding moment after moment of unexpected delights. Sometimes it’s full of dread and foreboding, and sometimes pulse-pounding excitement. Most interesting is the humor, black as night, which Bong manages to integrate without clashing with the rest of the picture (I’m thinking of one characters’ penchant for jump kicking people).
I don’t really know what facts the film is actually based on, but it feels like Bong took the idea of a serial killer in the year 1986 and then ran with it. That’s not to say the film doesn’t feel authentic, just that Bong was more interested in his story than the real story.
Bong followed up Memories with 2006’s The Host. This is the one you might have heard of, and for good reason. The Host is a family-drama/monster movie with plenty of laughs, action, scares, and some biting social commentary.
Song Kang-Ho (Thirst) stars again, as a lazy oaf working at a family owned convenience store on the Han River. He has a precocious daughter in grade school, a high-minded brother, a quiet and gentle sister, and a weary father. But before you’ve had a chance to get to know everybody, the creature shows up on a bright sunny day and wreaks havoc in a show stopping set piece that is both horrifying and hilarious.
Too many awesome things happen after that for me to spoil it here. Once again Bong succeeds in creating a typically simple-minded genre piece and then splits it into many different films without sacrificing a thing. The CGI is admittedly a little cheap looking, but the creature design is so fresh and put to such great use that you won’t mind. I can only imagine what Bong would be capable of with a Transformers budget.
Then, this last year, Bong made Mother. His most recent film shares a lot of traits with Memories (unsolved murder, mentally handicapped suspect, incompetent police force) but is still completely original. A young student is found murdered and the main suspect, last seen following the dead girl, is a handsome handicapped boy. His obsessive mother, convinced of his innocence, strives to set him free.
If that sounds a little too cheesy, you’ll have to trust me that Bong makes it anything but. There’s real suspense here but it’s in service of an interesting character study. The film doesn’t just jump into the detective stuff, and when it does, it certainly doesn’t jump in the direction you’d think. You know this woman will fight for her son, but at what cost, and are her motives really that altruistic? Bong’s camera is especially precise this time around, framing everything with just the right angle. He also gets a magnificent performance out of Kim Hye-Ja as the title character. She’s strung out and crazed with just the right amount of madness to keep you sympathetic and wary.
It’s only 3 films, but the brilliance of the director is apparent. This guy knows how to craft intelligent and singular pictures. They are at once entertaining and thought-provoking, absurd and genuine. The greatest compliment I can give Bong’s movies is that at any given moment, I never had any idea what was going to happen next. He’s a unique talent and I can’t wait to see what he does next. I only hope more people have a chance to discover what I already know.
Memories of Murder: A . . . The Host: A+ . . . Mother: A