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Posts Tagged ‘Song Kang-ho’

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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