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Posts Tagged ‘Bong Joon-ho’

There’s a game you can play, if you find yourself at a loose end (and, who knows, over-endowed with the will to live): it’s called ‘Foreign Movie or Not-Foreign Movie?’ It works like this: someone says the name of a movie and you have to decide if it’s foreign or not (complex rules, I know, but give it a chance).

It almost goes without saying that this game relies on a rather flexible definition of what actually counts as a foreign movie: in this situation, ‘foreign’ actually means ‘not in the English language’. Given the American, British and Australian (etc) film and movie industries are so radically different, you might very well think that this is stretching a point beyond the bounds of reason and off into the realms of the uncomfortably insular, but so it goes. Every more-accurate title I can think of is hopelessly unwieldy.

Cinema is a business, in the end, and it’s a fact that English is the closest thing to a lingua franca that the medium possesses – if you want your movie to get a decent international mainstream release, doing it in English smooths the way considerably. Perhaps the most notable exponent of this kind of thing is the French hyphenate Luc Besson, responsible for a string of largely fun-but-disreputable action thrillers like The Transporter, Columbiana and Lockout, all of which are technically French, but all of which (to paraphrase one critic) disguise their national origin to appeal to a wider international audience.

You don’t have to be making trashy genre movies to play this game, of course: Besson has done it with slightly more elevated fare as well. Even so, it doesn’t necessarily work in helping a film to cut through: which is just a rather circuitous way of saying that I don’t recall Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer getting much of a UK release when it came out back in 2013. This is a Korean-Czech co-production, but made in English and with a predominantly British and American cast; the subject matter, as we shall see, is essentially mainstream. And yet for some reason it still seems to have slipped through the cracks, round my way at least. Or maybe I was just distracted. So it goes.

Proof we are in traditional SF movie territory comes in the opening few minutes, where a bit of audio, some captions, and footage of chemtrails establish the premise of the film: in an attempt to halt global warming, a new chemical has been released into the upper atmosphere with the intention that it will cool the planet down a bit. This works much better than expected: far too well, in fact, with the planet transformed into an icy, uninhabitable snowball. The only remnant of civilisation is the Snowpiercer, a train which functions as a sealed, apparently self-sufficient habitat as it endlessly circles the planet.

Seventeen years on from the cataclysm, all is well aboard the Snowpiercer, as the passengers enjoy a pleasant lifestyle with all the amenities they have come to expect – passengers in first class, anyway. Back in third class, at the rear of the train, it’s a squalid, overcrowded hell, with no facilities and extreme discomfort (insert your own joke about the UK rail network here, should you wish). However, as the money and power of the third-class passengers is greatly exceeded by that of the people up front, no-one important really cares about them.

However, revolt is stirring at the back of the train, led by brooding, reluctant hero Curtis (Chris Evans), who is guided by a wise old man named Gilliam (Gilliam is played by John Hurt, and as there is a distinctly Gilliamesque feel to much of the movie, one wonders if there isn’t a little tip of the hat going on here). Their plan is to get past the gates and armed guards and reach the front of the train, where its creator Wilford (Ed Harris) is to be found, at which point a profound social realignment will take place. But it’s a long way to go, with many nasty surprises on the way…

So, yeah: missed Snowpiercer on the big screen, then Former Next Desk Colleague gave me a copy on a hard drive (hardly ethical, I know, but I was looking at two months’ solitary in Kyrgyzstan, so to speak) which I managed to bust before I watched it; sometimes it seems like the stars are just set wrong and you’re never going to see a film (still haven’t completely given up on Tiptoes, though).

But what do you know, I finally managed it, and this is certainly a superior example of what it appears to be trying to be: a proper science fiction film with genuine ideas in it, a touch of visual innovation, and plenty of violence to keep the mainstream punters happy.

It’s well-written, well-played, well-paced, well-designed and well-edited and meets every requirement of being an impressive movie which is worth your time, if slightly brainy SF action movies are your cup of tea at least (I can imagine some of the more graphic elements of the story may not be to everyone’s taste). One could probably take exception to a few elements of the plot as being slightly contrived and implausible, but this would be to miss part of the point of the piece.

This is that there is a limit to how literally we are intended to take the film: it seems to me to be a kind of existential fable or allegory, and this informs the story on a fundamental level. Rather like Ballard’s High-Rise, in which the tower block becomes a metaphor for society, so in Snowpiercer the train becomes a microcosm of the wider civilisation which initially created it, with the social divisions and inequities of the train reflecting those of our own world. This is hardly some deeply-buried subtext: this feels like an angry, insurrectionist movie, and one wonders if some of the more comic-grotesque elements (Tilda Swinton’s extraordinary apparatchik, for instance) have been included just to make the film more palatable as entertainment as well as a piece of agitprop.

On the other hand, beyond being a call for revolution, the movie also has a rather topical concern with the state of the world, and its sustainability: the train isn’t just a symbol of society, but for the world in ecological terms – the need to maintain a balanced and functioning closed system turns out to be one of the main drivers of the plot, and indeed is the main reason for the status quo on the train at the start of the film. The antagonists of the film suggest harsh measures are required to achieve this; the protagonists have no response beyond breaking open the system, not really an option available in the real world.

It’s not surprising, then, that Snowpiercer eventually comes across as a rather existentially bleak and ambiguous movie, certainly not an example of the traditional Hollywood ending. If it reminded me of anything, it would be The Matrix Reloaded – there is a similar mix of visual flair, elaborate violence, and philosophy – Curtis’ journey to visit Wilford recalls Neo’s quest to find the Architect, and both heroes are in for something of a surprise when they arrive. But Snowpiercer is a more coherent and satisfying film, and it’s not surprising Bong Joon-ho has gone on to become such an acclaimed director. Not perfect, but an impressive movie nevertheless.

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Just when I was thinking that the best guarantee of some privacy and isolation at the moment was a trip to the cinema, I actually found myself at a screening which almost resembled how things used to be in the old days: the place wasn’t exactly packed out, but it was still comfortably fuller than on most of my recent trips – the auditorium felt so crowded that I felt obliged to wear my mask, which hasn’t been the case previously. It was obviously slightly ironic that this should happen at a cinema which is about to close indefinitely due to lack of audiences, or films (depending on how you look at it). So, what secret had the Jericho Phoenix stumbled upon to lure in the crowds, given that there were only two of us at an Odeon screening of a commercial Hollywood genre movie the day before?

Well, it appears that if you really want to attract the punters, obscure foreign-language films from the early years of this century seem to be the way to go, for the Phoenix has been showing Memories of Murder (K-title: Salinui Chueok), the first major success of Bong Joon-ho’s career. When a previously little-known director wins a major prize, it’s quite common for the art house cinemas to dig up some of their older films (for instance, after Kore-eda won at Cannes with Shoplifters, the Phoenix revived After Life), but not normally for a full run. Did Memories of Murder do such good business at every showing? Oh well: strange days, as I’ve been saying since the middle of March. (It could be the high turn-out was due to the free popcorn being offered to every film-goer, a consequence of the place being about to close indefinitely.)

Memories of Murder is set in the mid-80s (the historical context does inform the story somewhat), in a small town in rural South Korea. Song Kang-ho (the father from Bong’s Parasite) plays Park, a local detective, who finds himself hunting a murderer after a young woman’s body is found in a drain. Finesse is not really a part of Park’s repertoire, and his approach is usually to decide who he thinks is the guilty party, contrive some evidence, and then get his sidekick Cho (Kim Roi-ha) to kick a confession out of them. This is not an ideal methodology for tracking down a serial killer, which is what they find themselves doing when a second body is discovered, and Park finds himself teamed up with Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), a cerebral detective from Seoul who is openly contemptuous of Park’s bull-at-a-gate approach to the case.

Unsurprisingly, the case Park has been trying to build against a scarred local youth with learning disabilities collapses, and the duo have to start again, trying to establish some kind of pattern – all the victims were dressed in a particular way, and the murders all took place on rainy nights. Could the playlist of the local radio station prove to be significant? How about some of the urban legends told by schoolchildren in the area? The detectives’ determination to solve the case increases as the killer strikes again and again, apparently with impugnity, but are they in danger of losing their objectivity with reagrd to the case?

Whatever else you might want to say about this film, it is not short of cheerleaders: its Wikipedia page currently suggests it is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time (not bad for a film I’d never even heard of until a couple of days ago), while Quentin Tarantino has also listed it amongst his favourite films of this century (which I suppose is the kind of recommendation which carries weight in some quarters). This is the kind of paragraph which seems to be heading for a ‘yes, but’ moment, and it is – however, only to the extent that I still think this is an involving and extremely well-made film, always certain to draw very positive notices.

The film is apparently based on the case of a real-life serial killer at work in South Korea in the late 80s and early 90s, but there is something quite universal about the story – indeed, given the acclaim Memories of Murder has received, I’m a little surprised we haven’t been treated to an American remake, as in many respects the film could easily work in another setting. You can see how Park fits into a distinguished lineage of corrupt small town cops from films dating back decades, and the friction between him and his bookish colleague also has a classic vibe to it. Strong performances from both actors give the film a really solid core, while Song in particular finds moments of black comedy that leaven the almost Stygian grimness of much of the story.

This is as gritty and bleak as any western crime drama, and its more sordid and repellent elements are handled graphically enough to make me suggest that this is not a film for those of sensitive dispositions, even though the level of actual violence is quite restrained. This is the kind of film where almost no-one seems without flaws or foibles, some of them quite serious. The cops’ building sense of frustration as one perverse inadequate after another proves not to be the murderer is almost palpable, and leads naturally into the climax of the film.

Here it takes a hard turn, in terms of genre conventions if not the actual plot: what has previous seemed to be a bleak police-procedural movie turns into much more of a drama, as the cops make serious mistakes that threaten not just the investigation but their careers. If the two of them eventually find a sort of understanding, it is under the bleakest and most downbeat of circumstances. I would imagine that many people may find the conclusion of Memories of Murder to be a disappointing anticlimax, but I think Bong just about pulls it off: this is more than just a detective story right from the start. Not an uplifting or escapist film, but a serious and ultimately satisfying drama.

(And when it was over, we emerged into the foyer to be greeted by a poster for No Time to Die proclaiming ‘Coming November’. Not November of 2020, though; if it turns out to be November 2021 – or even sooner – one wonders if there will still be any cinemas left to show it. I suspect films of Bond’s stature will always find a home; it’s the less-mainstream productions like Memories of Murder that will vanish from our culture if we lose the art house and independent cinemas. Lives matter more than culture, of course, but what is the value of life without art and stories? The cultural damage done by this virus is threatening to be every bit as severe as its economic impact, if not worse.)

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I used to get a little bit exercised by people choosing inappropriate titles for their movies. I don’t just mean bad movies using good names, just titles which seem… not quite right for the movie. Back in 2011, Paddy Considine released a film called Tyrannosaur, which is a perfectly good title for a film featuring a carnivorous theropod on the rampage. Attaching it to an (admittedly very good) downbeat naturalistic drama about the corrosive effects of male rage struck me as a bit of a waste, to be honest.

When I first started hearing people talking about a movie called Parasite, I was pretty sure I knew what they were on about: I have vague memories of the film in question, which was directed by low-budget maestro Charles Band, released in 1982 and features Demi Moore in an early role. Suffice to say there is a lot of icky body horror and slimy things with teeth infesting various secondary members of the cast. This is exactly what I would expect from a movie called Parasite.

Of course, we now live in a world where – as is occasionally the case with films with mononymic titles – anyone wanting to watch Demi Moore just starting out had best take care, as there is now another, rather better-known film called Parasite. Not that confusion is particularly likely, of course: the 1982 movie has an 11% rating on a solanaceous review aggregation site, and won no awards whatsover, while the new one, directed by Bong Joon-ho, is currently scoring 99%, in addition to winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes and Best Picture at the Academy Awards – the first film to win both in 65 years, and the first film made in a foreign language to win the big prize at the Oscars.

This is the kind of acclaim that often leads to impossibly high expectations, but on the other hand it does work a treat in getting a slightly arty-looking subtitled film a major release – I note that, in the UK at least, Parasite didn’t start to appear in some multiplexes until after it won the Oscar. Certainly, to begin with it bears a passing resemblance to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, another acclaimed Asian movie which didn’t get a major UK release.

To begin with, we are in the company of the Kim family, a penurious Seoul family reduced to living in a basement and folding disposable pizza boxes to scrape a living. Patriarch of this unprepossessing mob is Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), a moderately successful hammer thrower now gone to seed, his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and their children Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). The Kims are living so close to the edge that their neighbour putting a password on her wifi constitutes a significant problem for them.

However, this all changes when Ki-woo’s friend Min finds him a job giving English lessons to the daughter of the wealthy Park family – Min has a mind to woo her once he gets back from a trip abroad, and has thus recommended Ki-woo as someone from such a poverty-stricken background can’t possibly be a romantic rival to him. He also gives the Kims a lucky rock, which will supposedly bring them good fortune. ‘Wow, it’s so metaphorical!’ cries a delighted Ki-woo, in one of the script’s many droll touches. Ki-woo duly passes muster with the slightly dippy mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) of the Park family.

What rapidly becomes apparent is that this is the sort of opportunity the Kims have clearly been waiting for for quite some time. With the speed and ferocity of a burrowing maggot, they waste no time in inserting themselves into the Parks’ lovely home: Ki-woo spots that his new employers’ hyperactive younger child likes drawing, and thus introduces Ki-jeong as a potential art therapist for the lad. The sacking of the family servants is ingeniously contrived, creating vacancies that the two senior Kims can fill. Soon the whole family is cheerfully soaking the Parks for whatever they can get, with their hosts blissfully unaware even of the fact they are unwittingly employing four members of the same family. The Kims begin to have dreams of a better life and a better future – because what could possibly go wrong…?

Needless to say, something goes wrong, but the volta that occurs halfway through Parasite is so startling and genuinely unpredictable that one would have to be a real cad to give more than a few hints as to what goes on in the second half of the film. Needless to say, class tensions bubble to the surface, there’s an epically unsuccessful birthday party, the issue of body odour proves unexpectedly significant to the plot and the lucky rock proves to be quite unlucky, for one character at least.

So, this isn’t really a horror movie, but if it is an art-house movie it’s only because of the subtitles (‘the one-inch-tall barrier’, as the director so aptly put it). This is really no more ‘arty’ than a film by Christopher Nolan or Stanley Kubrick, unless by arty you mean made with tremendous imagination and skill. I didn’t see Snowpiercer (someone gave it to me on a hard drive, which then went pop before I could watch it) and my admiration for his giant pig film was qualified at best, but this is a terrific movie.

Obviously, this is a film with things to say about serious and universal themes: the awkward relationship between wealth and power, and class consciousness, most obviously (you could draw a definite thematic parallel between Parasite and The Time Machine, if you really wanted to). Not that the title is without a degree of ambiguity – it’s clear that both families need each other in order to function (so perhaps Symbiosis would be just as apt a title). You could also argue that the film takes the fact that servants and lower-class people often seem to be invisible to the rich and powerful and makes it one of the central metaphors of the movie. There is a lot going on here.

Nevertheless, the denseness of the film’s ideas never get in the way of its entertainment value, or its achievement as a piece of cinema. Almost from the start you are swept along, as the Kims put their plan into motion with a gleeful ruthlessness – they are such an agreeable bunch, and Mrs Park in particular is so useless, that you can’t help but want them to get away with it, even though what they are up to is deeply morally questionable. Towards the end of the film the comedic elements inevitably fall away, however, and the film becomes darker and more complex, but the shift is as impeccably handled as the rest of it.

Parasite has pretty much everything one could hope for from a movie, and it is fully deserving of all its praise and accollades. Hopefully the one-inch-tall barrier will not keep too many people from watching it, for this is a film which balances serious themes with superb storytelling skill and the result is a film which is compellingly watchable from start to finish. Proof that the Academy Awards do sometimes get things right.

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I am increasingly aware that I am, in many important ways, a man out of time – not to the extent of wearing double-breasted pyjamas or being hailed as a possible future Tory Prime Minister, but I’m fully aware that many of my views are, well, rather old-fashioned. One of these is that the best place for watching a new film is the cinema. This may just be dyed-in-the-wool traditionalism, or possibly simply the fact that going to the pictures a couple of times a week often makes up most of my social life (there are other people there, after all, even if I don’t speak to them or actually know their names).

Nevertheless, the world moves on, and new films are starting to show up in places you might not have expected a few years ago. Investing heavily in films, along with much else, is a video streaming site which is not paying me for advertising and so which I will not name. (Suffice to say it rhymes with Get Clicks.) One thing you can say about these guys is that they do not skimp when it comes to things like actors or production values: they show every sign of making proper big movies which would be quite at home getting a (proper) traditional theatrical release.

For example, let us consider Okja, directed by Bong Joon-ho, a movie which appeared on the site in question. There are some extremely odd things about this film and the manner in which it has been presented, but it is no more extravagantly weird than many other films which I’ve seen recently.

Tilda Swinton plays Lucy Mirando, newly-installed boss of a major corporation, who as the film starts reveals her plan to start a ten-year programme of raising a litter of unusual ‘super pigs’ in different locations around the world. The new breed of pig offers hope of an end to the problem of global food shortages forever!

Hmm, well. Ten years pass and we meet Mija (An Seo Hyun), a young girl living in the remote mountains of South Korea with her lazy and skinflint grandfather – and Okja, one of the Mirando super pigs they have been entrusted with. Okja is an impressive beast, having grown from cute piglethood into something resembling an endearing hybrid of a particularly big hippo and Lockjaw from The Inhumans. Needless to say, Mija and Okja have a very strong bond, and as they have purchased Okja from the corporation, their rustic idyll can continue forever.

Except, of course, that her grandfather has been lying about buying the pig, and Mirando’s apparatchiks turn up, accompanied by their zoologist shill Dr Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal), to take Okja off to Seoul and then New York for the final of the Giant Super Pig Contest. Okja is spirited away without Mija’s consent (spiriting away an animal the size of a small van is a neat trick, I have to admit), and she is outraged when she learns of her grandfather’s deception. Mija equips herself for an epic quest and sets off in search of her beloved animal…

Now – and I hope I’m not breaking any confidences here – my sister has a thing about pigs. Hmm, perhaps that didn’t come across quite the way it was intended to. I should clarify things and stress that she is just inordinately fond of our porcine friends. No, that’s not quite right either – well, look, she’s a pig person, all right, just not in any peculiar or unwholesome way. And so it occurred to me that I might end up recommending Okja as a film she would want to watch, perhaps with her kids. Certainly, the opening set-up has that slightly grotesque and outlandish quality of a Roald Dahl story, and the first movement of the story feels intentionally ‘classic’ in its elements and tone.

But I will not be suggesting Sister-of-Awix check this movie out, and especially not with her children around. This is indeed a film about a young girl’s quest to recover her giant, slightly magical pig, with a somewhat fantastical tone. But it is a fantastical film about a young girl and her giant magical pig with a monumental F-bomb count, some startlingly brutal violence, and also a no-holds-barred visit to an abattoir at one point. It’s all a bit more Tom-Yum-Goong than it is a Disney film.

General consensus seems to be that Get Clicks have dropped the ball when it comes to its handling of Okja, not least because it is still listed on its UK site as a ‘G’. This in itself is slightly confusing, as it’s not a standard British certification – I assumed it stood for ‘General’, but apparently it means ‘Guidance recommended’. The BBFC, by the way, appear to have given Okja a 15 certificate, which seems to me to be entirely appropriate.

But you can’t really blame Get Clicks, except in the most general way, for the fact that Okja is utterly bizarre in its tone – this is definitely not a children’s film. But it has the same kind of subject matter as a children’s film, and is largely made in the style of one. So, what exactly is going on here? I fear the worst, readers, specifically that this film has been made to appeal to the dreaded Ironic Sensibility. Many of the English-language scenes not concerning Mija and Okja have a very knowing, tongue-in-cheek quality, which after a while set my teeth to aching. The film seems to be inciting at least part of its audience to be complicit in its own weirdness, while assuring them that it is absolutely sound in terms of its politics and morality and so on. I know I am on the thinnest of thin ice here, but I have a very low tolerance for the whole phenomenon where adults sit down and have earnest conversations about (for example) the admirably progressive gender politics of a cartoon about talking kittens. It seems to me to represent a retreat from maturity and actual engagement with the serious issues of life – except where serious issues are handled only in the most simplistic way. The looming threat of right-on smugness is a constant danger.

So I found it with much of Okja. This is, obviously, a film with a message to deliver about animal rights and the practices of the food industry – you could quite probably label it as a piece of pro-vegetarian propaganda, to be honest. Fair enough – there are arguments to be made here. But the style of Okja means its sheer sentimentality grates with the graphic nature of many of its scenes. This is a shamelessly, brazenly manipulative film, so much so that it actually becomes irritating rather than affecting. My first instinct after it finished was to go and have a sausage baguette, just on principle.

This is not to say that there is not much to enjoy in Okja – the staging of the early scenes with Mija and Okja in the forest is honestly magical, and the depiction of Okja is genuinely stunning – CGI never ceases to improve, of course, but I have absolutely no clue how some of the shots in this movie were achieved. Then again, the film is almost wholly about Okja (hence the name), so I suppose getting the CGI right was a priority. There are also a raft of good performances from people like Swinton, Gyllenhaal, Shirley Henderson, and Paul Dano (who appears as an animal rights activist).

In the end, though, I couldn’t help thinking that Okja is only a few more script drafts away from being a really great children’s film – Babe, quite literally on steroids. But as it stands, there’s too much profanity and darkness in this film for it to be suitable for normal kids, while at the same time it’s too childish and eccentric to function as a piece of entertainment for mature audiences. Definite talent at work here, but in a very undisciplined way.

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