I talk to Max Bawtree about Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-Ho, South Korea, 2003), focussing on its use of violence, representation of gender, and the importance of cinematography and framing throughout. The podcast may be listened to here:
Two thoughts on watching The Host, currently on MUBI: the first is that the film is unimaginable before digital both in terms of its aesthetic and in terms of its country of origin, or more precisely put, no small national cinema could have afforded such sheen, such beautifully realised f/x on a monster movie previous to digital. Of course the Godzilla phenomenon is proof that these films were made, and often more successfully made, outside Hollywood. However, part of the charm of watching those old films is the creakyness, the way that imagination often had to compensate for lack of means. I´m sure compromises were made on what could be shown in The Host . One could see them: the way the monster is often seen only partially, how much of the eating of people and so on happens offscreen, or behind things, or inside trailers shot from outside, etc. Economies were clearly made. But economies are made in every film. And this one seems to me fully realised.
In The Host one is dazzled by skill. The look of the opening sequences in the lab, the way the light hits on chrome as we´re told that chemicals are being dumped into the river by Americans with the Korean scientist having no option but to comply. Then the scenes on the river as a person goes to commit suicide, the people chasing him, his look downwards as he detects a shape. It´s not just that we get all the information and feel the tension. Look at how expressive the shot of the two fishermen below is, the city in the background, in a fog, the vast expanse of river, the two vulerable and unware fishermen discovering something. The compositions are so clever and expressive, the colour grading just right. It looks beautiful.
But the look is only one aspect. Listen to the sound design, note how the sound disappears or is altered in relation to moments of tension. Note also the structure of of the film, how it begins in a lab with Americans, how it´s resolved on TV but with our remaining protagonists too concerned with their meal to care about the larger issues.
The story is told with great intelligence, Bong Joon-Ho focuses all of the narrative on a working-class family who live off a convenience shop by the beach. And as in Parasite, we are shown how their are families even worse off than they. Am I wrong in thinking that so much of American horror focusses on the middle class, sometimes even on scientists who instigate or try to resolve the problem? It´s nice to see working-class people at the centre, embodying and speaking a nation and a dilemma. Themes of class, gender, the environment, an inept South Korean government and oppressive US imperialism are woven in throughout the film.
Aside from being smart, the film is also witty, and on various levels, not just dialogue or situation but visually also. See the still below where the monster rampages through the park and leaps onto the river and we get the contrast between the twee ducks and dolphins and the rampaging mutant squid that´s about to devour everything.
The intelligence, the know-how, the though in relation to sounds and images, makes one realise how little we settle for in cinema. If we were more sophisticated viewers we´d appreciate that 90% of the time we´re watching the visual equivalent of Harold Robbins or virtue tracks by a provincial preacher who knows very little of the world and even less of how to express it. This film is on completely different level altogether, and with all of the coronavirus coverage on the news, more timely than ever. .
Lovely also to see Bae Doona of Sense8 fame as a champion archer in an early role.
I loved Parasite and have posted much on the film, from the significance of the rock, the income gap, the noodles, its relation to the issue of postcolonialism, etc. We´ve even done a podcast. It´s a very rich film. But it also feels like it lacks mystery. That everything in the film is not only interpretable but explainable. That everything has been encoded to clearly extract. That´s great. But it also feels a lack. Nothing in the film has the giddy, quirky, entrancing and mysterious joy of Kim Hye-Ja as the mother dancing to that fabulous and foreign (Spanish? Cuban? I´ve heard it´s flamenco but it doesn´t quite sound like the flamenco I know) music which ends and starts Mother. Just a thought (and some images):
It’s one of José’s films of the year; it leaves Mike cold. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite depicts social inequality in South Korea through a lower-class family that cons its way into working for an upper-class family. We pick our way through the film’s structure; its motif of staircases that delineate status and power relations; the way poverty carries with it an inescapable smell, intolerable to the upper class; the two families’ experiences of nature and the desire for sunshine.
It builds on some aspects of horror, but cannot at all be considered one, either in genre or affect – though the fact that its trailers sold it as such might have something to do with Mike’s frosty response. It’s an allegorical thriller, every character standing in place of a class or group of people, and its construction is intelligent, thoughtful and tight. For José, it works on a visceral level, the mood and tone emphasising and combining with the structure and metaphor; for Mike, it’s a flat experience, a clever essay with definite interpretations and little feeling.
But it’s clearly touched a nerve, connecting with worldwide audiences. It speaks not just to conditions in South Korea but a global system of oppression and inequality under capitalism. We may not agree on what it makes us feel, but it’s potent food for thought and offers much to discuss. Don’t miss it.
Also in this episode, we take a look at the upcoming Oscars, which eager cinephiles will be able to watch yesterday.