Bong Joon-Ho

Memories of Murder

11/02/21

Apple TV

2020 will be remembered for many things and, alas, very few of them good ones – but it was the year that Bong Joon-Ho’s extraordinary film Parasite conquered the Oscars, carving its way through the opposition with apparent ease. For the director, it was the culmination of a varied career in cinema. Of course, he had already acquired many fans along the way, myself included. His 2016 monster movie, The Host is one of the best examples of an often underwhelming genre, while his 2013 film, Snowpiercer, though virtually annihilated by studio intervention, and never given a theatrical release, was subsequently adapted into a very successful Netflix series.

So the chance to revisit the director’s second feature, 2003’s Memories of Murder, is an opportunity not to be missed, especially when it comes with a dazzling 4K restoration.

Inspired by South Korea’s first recorded serial killer case and set in the 1980s, the film depicts how a police force in a remote province struggles to come to terms with a series of baffling murders. Detective Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song) is a rough-and-ready cop, convinced that he can identify a guilty suspect simply by looking at them, and ever ready to beat out a confession, aided by his even more quick-fisted assistant, Cho Yong-koo (Roe-ha Kim). But when Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) arrives from Seoul, he applies a more sophisticated approach to the investigation, quickly establishing that the department’s current chief suspect could never have committed the crime.

The two detectives find themselves at loggerheads and, as each new lead takes them down a series of bewildering rabbit holes, it’s anybody’s guess which of their approaches will prove most successful…

Memories of Murder manages to take a well-worn cinematic path and reinvent it as it goes. It’s hard to think of a Western serial killer film that so audaciously interweaves slapstick comedy throughout a very serious storyline, but it’s pulled off here with apparent ease. An early sequence, where the poorly-equipped cops flail oafishly around a crime scene, is perfectly judged – and it’s just the start, as Park Doo-man blunders headlong through a series of disasters, always managing to jump to the wrong conclusion, always missing the evidence that dangles right in front of his – supposedly magical – gaze. We really ought to hate him, but Kang-ho Sang somehow makes him immensely likeable – the same trick he managed so effectively in Parasite.

Meanwhile, his supposedly more sophisticated rival, Seo Tae-yoon, is driven by his own internal demons and, when he finally fixes on a possible suspect, finds himself in serious danger of resorting to the kind of approach he so despises. It’s at the film’s conclusion where the story really delivers its most powerful gut-punch, with a final shot that lingers in the memory.

This is far above the usual crime procedural. And, lest I give the impression that it’s a film that was unfairly ignored on first release, don’t be fooled. Memories of Murder won 31 awards at film festivals around Asia.

It’s simply that it took Oscar quite some time to catch on to a good thing.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Parasite

07/02/20

I’ve long been a fan of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. His 2006 film, The Host remains one of my all-time favourite creature features, while both Okja and Snowpiercer, though not perfect, are the work of a director who’s always ready to break new ground and look for the unexpected in every situation. With Parasite, however, he takes a giant step into the stratosphere. This is filmmaking at its most inventive. Little wonder it’s hotly tipped to lift the Oscar for best international film and, possibly,  the biggest prize of them all.

It’s the story of two families – one poor, one rich – and their interactions with each other. The Ki family are down-on-their luck, all four of them unemployed, living a squalid existence in a stinkbug-infested basement and reduced to hacking the wifi signals of their neighbours in order to find out what’s happening in the world.

Then young Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) is unexpectedly handed a lifeline by his student friend, who asks him to take over as English tutor to the daughter of a wealthy family, the Parks, who live in a super-swish uptown house. Ki-woo is not qualified to do the work, but his sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), is a dab hand on the computer and easily runs him up some fake documentation. He charms the gullible Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) into employing him and, when he finds out that her troubled young son has artistic aspirations, Ki-woo seizes the opportunity to bring in his sister as an ‘art tutor’ called Jessica.

From there, it isn’t long before the conniving kids have managed to instal their father as the family’s chauffeur and their mother as a replacement for the Park’s long-term housekeeper. So far, what we have is a very enjoyable story about a cunning deception, played for laughs and endlessly inventive as the home invaders, driven by the desperation of their own poverty, use ever more complicated ruses to assert their dominance over their rich employers.

But it’s at this point that the story takes a much darker turn, stepping in out of left field and slapping the viewer hard. It would be a crime to reveal anything more of the plot; suffice to say that what emerges is a brilliant study of class and privilege – an examination of the harsh, uncrossable wastelands that lie between the haves and the have-nots. The brilliance of the script is that you still feel sympathy for the confidence tricksters, no matter what depths they sink to in order to maintain their deception. Neither are the Parks depicted as monsters; they are just over-privileged, and oblivious to the fact that they’re treating their employees as disposable commodities.

As the story gallops towards its shocking climax, there’s barely time to catch your breath – and there’s a wistful, aching coda that has me leaving the cinema with a tear in my eye. Parasite is not only a landmark event for Asian cinema, it’s the work of a brilliant director at the height of his game. Those who are put off by subtitles should note that it really doesn’t matter here. See this version, before the inevitable American remake appears.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Okja

10/07/17

This bizarre fantasy movie, helmed by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), caused some controversy at Cannes earlier this year because, as a ‘Netfix Original,’ it had no theatrical release and was therefore ineligible to compete with its more traditional brethren. But the cinematic world is rapidly changing and however a film is released, it surely deserves proper consideration. Whatever – it’s now available for all Netflix subscribers to see whenever they want.

The titular heroine of the film is not a human character, but a pig – a genetically engineered ‘super pig’ – bigger than your average farmyard swine and designed especially to feed a rapidly burgeoning population. Okja is one of ten specially selected pigs, sent out to farms across the globe and left to mature for ten years, before being recalled to participate in a competition to decide which is the best specimen. The competition is the brainchild of Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), CEO of the Mirando corporation, and the competition merely a ruse to cloak the cold brutality of the operation with a cheesy PR campaign.

Okja lives on a remote farm in the mountains of South Korea, with Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), a little girl who has come to regard the creature as a friend and equal. These early sequences are an unqualified delight. Okja is a superb CGI creation, beautifully realised amid lush mountain locations and sophisticated enough to challenge the best of Hollywood’s FX output. Okja and Mija live an idyllic existence until the arrival of a PR team from Mirando at the farm, led by the manic Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, a character apparently inspired by the late Johnny Morris). Before Mija knows what’s happening Okja has been pignapped and taken to Seoul, where (in the film’s standout sequence) she runs amok in a shopping arcade with Mija in hot pursuit.

Then a group of zany animal activists arrive on the scene led by Jay (Paul Dano) and suddenly the film isn’t quite so sure of itself. The main problem from  here is one of indecision about what the film is actually trying to be. What seems at first to be a charming, child-friendly concept rapidly turns into something much more controversial, replete with F-bombs, bloodshed and one scene so downright distressing it seems to have wandered in from an 18 certificate horror movie. Ultimately, this feels like a parable about the virtues of a vegetarian diet but, if that is the aim, it hasn’t been fully thought-through. Also, many of the film’s human protagonists have a tendency to come across as shrill caricatures (Gyllenhaal’s character, for example, a former animal lover driven to destroy everything he believes in, doesn’t really convince: there’s simply not enough evidence of any motivation here).

As the film thunders into its final strait it rallies somewhat, but the damage has already been done. Bong Joon-Ho is undoubtedly a gifted filmmaker but this falls somewhat short of his best efforts – nevertheless, it’s still a brave attempt to push the boundaries beyond the norm and is well worth checking out – if only  for those delightful early scenes.

Just don’t make the mistake of letting younger children watch it, unless you want tears before bedtime.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney