by Ellsworth Benchwood
Bong-Joon ho’s English-language debut, “Snowpiercer” (2013), was a rare example of a critically acclaimed box-office big-hitter in the science fiction genre. It stars Chris Evans as the leader of a rebellion aboard a giant speeding post-apocalyptic train carrying the last survivors of a global deep-freeze.
The movie features a supporting cast of international art-film actors, all of them big-time fans of Director Bong’s (addressing a director as “Director [Name]” is a Korean tradition the international actors seem to enjoy) earlier great Korean-language movies: Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Ewen Bremmer (whose performance in Mike Leigh’s “Naked” (1994) caught Director Bong’s attention), to name a few. One cast member, Song Kang-ho, had previously worked with Bong in the gripping police procedural “Memories of Murder” (2003), and in the monster-movie comedy “The Host”, which after its release in 2006 became the highest-grossing South Korean movie of all time.
“The Host” is a curious case. Thirty years earlier out of necessity due to a frequently malfunctioning mechanical shark, Steven Spielberg (making daily frantic script changes with Carl Gottlieb) improvised ingeniously in the making of “Jaws,” the greatest monster movie ever made. The shark is barely seen in the first half of the movie, and tension is built with suggestion and the viewer’s own imagination – e.g., two fishermen, standing on a dock, hook the shark with a slab of meat hooked to a chain attached to the dock, the shark is so strong that it rips the dock in half, causing one of the fishermen to fall into the water and scramble to climb back on to the remaining dock we see as the ripped off-section of the dock (attached to the shark, which is underwater) first being pulled out to sea then turning around and being pulled back toward the flailing fisherman.
By devising ways of generating thrills without even showing the monster, Spielberg and Gottleib are rightly credited with making lemonade out of the lemons of a malfunctioning mechanical shark, and in the process, making the blueprint for the now-standard monster movie practice of only offering fleeting glimpses of the monster before the final act. “The Host”, however, gleefully turns this notion on its ear by giving its monster (a giant, roaring, mutated-by-toxic-chemicals fish/lizard creature) full camera coverage in an equal parts horrific/hilarious pandemonium rampage sequence in the first ten minutes of the movie.
It’s a rapid-fire set piece of gags that are familiar and yet not – one shot has Song in the foreground center-frame, running among the screaming crowd of people on the riverside, with the creature in the background in the far left of the frame swinging its tail and swatting a person who goes flying 50 feet in the air and splashing down into the river. It looks like the tail-swat isn’t even a deliberate act, but rather just an accident that the creature barely even notices, one of the dozens of casualties of this giant clumsy hideous creature bounding around trying to eat a few of the screaming people running in all directions. That the camera barely even catches the act makes it weirdly funnier. We’ve seen movie monsters attacking crowds of people before but never quite like this, and the fun of the horror is guided by our identification with Song’s reaction of amazement and disbelief.
“The Host” understandably shattered South Korean box-office records and established Bong as an artist of extraordinary imagination, humor and technical skill. It also demonstrated his versatility – three years earlier Bong directed the quiet, haunting “Memories of Murder,” in which Song plays a police detective investigating a string of killings in a small South Korean town. Perhaps here more than in any movie, Bong displays his knack for weaving comedy and drama to great effect, deftly balancing disparate tones, thanks in large part to Song’s work in the lead role.
Song’s character isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he’s aware of his own intellectual limitations and has made a successful career of using brute force to keep the town’s small-time criminal element in check. When bodies start turning up that reveal a distinctive m.o. of an intelligent serial killer who is clearly very good at covering his tracks, Song comes to realize that finding the killer will take more than his usual technique of beating a confession out of a local punk.
With the investigation sputtering, a big-city detective (played by Kim Sang-Kyung) with more modern and sophisticated training is dispatched from Seoul to take over. Some of the movie’s funniest scenes arise from Kim’s bewilderment at Song’s primitive, violent and ethically questionable evidence-gathering methods. However, even as he lets the comedic vibe flow, Bong never loses the undercurrent of sadness and frustration as the killer’s body count climbs. Much like David Fincher’s terrific “Zodiac” (2007), “Memories of Murder” becomes less about the case than about the effect the case has on the detectives, as they become gradually more desperate and obsessed.
Had it stopped there, “Memories of Murder” would have been an unforgettable movie, but Bong closes it with a devastating coda. Leonardo Dicaprio recently executed a memorable “final shot of the movie = protagonist looking directly into the camera” moment in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” (2016). Whether Iñárritu was inspired by (or even saw) the final shot of “Memories of Murder” isn’t important – in both cases, the moment is earned and feels not only like a fitting final image of a character who has been through the wringer, but also like a thank-you to the actor for taking the journey.