THE FANTASTIC CINEMA OF BONG JOON-HO
With Parasite (2019) having just won six Oscars and becoming the first subtitled film to win Best Picture, everyone is talking about writer/director Bong Joon-ho and his black comedy on class warfare, which applies as much to the United States as it does to his native South Korea. A poor family living in a basement dwelling with minimal cell phone reception and pitiful income struggles to get by. When the teenage son gets recruited to tutor a rich girl high up in the city hills, he, his sister, and finally their parents (including Bong regular Song Kang-ho as the father) find opportunistic ways to replace each of the people that are working for this rich family. Soon, the poor clan is working for the wealthy one to siphon from their luxurious life. While the deception first comes off as satirical, things take a dark and unexpected turn that have dire consequences for everyone.
We are living in dire economic times even in Western culture with the rise of the 1 percent and the threat of authoritarianism spreading within and outside of the United States. This film taps into financial fears on the other side of the world that ring true on our side of the planet. There is a lot of striking symbolism and imagery stacked into Parasite. The characterizations are not cut and dry, and the powerful climax bonds all of the main characters in a way that will psychically scar them forever.
There are those who argue that the World War I epic 1917 or Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood were better suited to win some of the awards that Parasite snagged, including Best Picture, but this film is highly relevant. Bong Joon-ho’s latest is a breath of fresh air, and it is also important because we are still not seeing a lot of Asians and Asian-Americans in Hollywood pictures. Viewers who get excited about Parasite will also want to delve into the director’s other work as well as other worthy South Korean films. Let’s dive into three more Bong movies here.
Previous to Parasite, he co-wrote and directed Okja (2017) which resulted in him turning vegan for a little while. This Netflix original skated below the mainstream radar of many American viewers but is now ripe for discovery, and in some cases, rediscovery. The plot involves an ambitious factory farming magnate (Tilda Swinton) who sends twenty-six pigs to the best farmers around the world. Their goal is to raise the biggest and best super pig. It sounds like a benign competition, but we already know what the end result will be. In the mountains of South Korea, super pig Okja lives with an elderly farmer and his sweet and nurturing granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun). When their corporate masters take her pig away after 10 years, Mija purses them first to Seoul and then to Okja’s ultimate destination of New York City. Along the way, she becomes entangled with corporate profiteers (including Giancarlo Esposito) and passionate but flawed animal activists (including Paul Dano and The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun) who seek to free Okja from his captivity. Moral and ethical lines soon become blurred among many of the characters.
Okja is one of those films that shifts tone substantially between each of its three acts. The first one deals with the bonding between Mija and Okja and has an idyllic quality. Mija’s pursuit of Okja takes an over-the-top, Hollywood-ish turn, but the movie is redeemed in its third act as Mija and the animal activists seek to free Okja from certain doom. Jake Gyllenhaal’s overacting as the desperate TV host threatens to torpedo the movie, but not even his misdirected performance will keep you from being riveted and horrified by the climactic scene. Animal lovers will likely have a hard time with this film, but Okja will leave an indelible impression on you whether you are vegan or not.
Another Bong movie released via Netflix was Snowpiercer (2013), which more Americans are likely familiar with. Obviously, there is a theme of class warfare running throughout the director’s work, and Snowpiercer is no exception. Adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, this movie tells the tale of a future are where climate change engineering gone awry has induced a new ice age, and the surviving citizens of Earth have been corralled into a constantly speeding train criss-crossing the globe that has been divided into class sections, with the poorest shoved in the back, and the most affluent dominating the front. A group of angry protesters, including Chris Evans (Captain America himself) and Song Kang-ho, decide they cannot tolerate the discrimination and oppression any longer. As they begin making their way to the front of the train, their propulsive push results in vicious violence. Tilda Swinton revels in playing an autocratic crony. Other notable cast members include John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, and Ed Harris.
Snowpiercer balances intellectualism with brutality and walks the line fairly well. It’s also a perfect metaphor for what’s happening in the world today, which is humanity plummeting towards its own possible extinction, in part due to the fact that we are divided by our divergent political ideas and class systems, rather than uniting in a common cause. It’s a fun, compelling action picture that is a hell of a lot better than watching generic action franchises. It’s often fast, furious, and thrilling.
Finally, let’s step back another few years to Bong’s monster masterpiece The Host (2006), which had a fairly good life on home video when it was first released in the United States. This is one crazy creature calamity that is blamed on Americans. A U.S. soldier is ordered to dump numerous bottles of formaldehyde down the drain at a South Korean military facility, and years later a gigantic, fish-like creature emerges from Seoul’s Han River and begins wreaking havoc, slowly kidnapping citizens for food and spreading a deadly virus upon direct contact with humans. One of these abductees is the young daughter (Snowpiercer‘s Go Ah-sung) of a slow-witted snack bar owner (again, Song Kang-ho). His family knows that the only way to save their own is to go after her themselves, which means escaping military lockdown and having a bounty placed on their heads. Once more, the underdogs must fight to survive, and family unity helps them stay sane. On its surface, The Host is a super fun monster mash with great digital effects, but the familial bonds add extra gravitas and place this well above like-minded genre pictures.
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Bringing Doctor Sleep (2019), the sequel to The Shining, to the big screen is a tricky gambit given the fact that Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film deviated substantially from Stephen King’s original book, notably during the climax. But writer-director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush, and The Haunting of Hill House series) manages to make it work fairly well. He avoids the overt scares of the original and instead delivers a psychological supernatural drama with a few freaky moments. Starting 31 years after the events of the original story, Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) has grown up to become a wandering boozer who’s trying to get away from himself. Thanks to the help of a recovering alcoholic in New Hampshire (Cliff Curtis), he gets a job as a hospital orderly and manages to kick his addiction for the next 8 years. But then he develops an unexpected telepathic connection with a young girl (Kyliegh Curran) who also has super-powered abilities of the Shining, and she becomes unintentionally plugged into a roaming band of psychic vampires who prey on the life force of young children who shine. Inevitably, the paths of all three parties will cross, and since this is Stephen King, you know the results won’t be pretty.
What’s interesting about this film is the re-creation of certain scenes from the original film, as well as unseen moments after that story, done with new actors in the parts of young Danny Torrance, his mother Wendy, and the deceased Jack Halloran. The parts are well cast and allow for a chance to revisit pivotal moments from The Shining, then continue forward with the narrative arc of the sequel. The lead villain of the film (Rebecca Ferguson) is crafty and underhanded, although she is not as frightening as the phantasms that haunted the Overlook Hotel. Also, given the fact that this two-and-a-half hour film moves along at a relatively slow pace, you’re likely figure out how the climactic sequence is going to play out. It’s still very well done but not a shocker. Overall, Doctor Sleep is well-made, well-acted, and features excellent cinematography from Michael Fimognari, whose work with muted colors and shadowy scenes looks very good in 4K.
The longer director’s cut of the film is included as a bonus Blu-Ray and adds nearly an extra half an hour of character development and some new scenes to further flesh out the story. Many fans and critics have debated which version is better. I tend to default to director’s cuts simply because it’s less frustrating to learn what was cut out later than wondering what you missed. That said, Doctor Sleep is still not an overwhelming horror sequel. It has its moments, but let’s face it, it’s impossible to top The Shining.
RAGE OF THE RUSALKA
Although the mythology of mermaids and sirens has been mixed together over time, sirens have always been the more sinister and deadly of the two creatures. They are the ominous ladies whose beautiful voices lure sailors and their ships to a watery grave. In the indie film The Siren (2019), the titular character is actually a rusalka (a Slavic myth and the original title of the film), a woman who experienced a tragic death and now hungers for the life force of others. She is not fish-like as a mermaid, nor is she half-bird like sirens of old. She is a dark spirit who perpetually resides in the water. That makes things more difficult when she falls in love with a mute man who rents a cabin on her lake during the summertime. When they meet, they become spellbound by the other, and they gradually fantasize about becoming the form of the other so they can become true lovers. Further complicating matters is the presence of a man whose late husband was likely killed by the siren, and he seeks revenge.
Written and directed by Perry Blackshear, who made the underrated They Look Like People (one of the few horror films that I feel handles mental illness with insight and compassion), The Siren is a supernatural romance with intermittent fearful moments. Interestingly enough, the two main leads (MacLeod Andrews and Margaret Ying Drake) co-starred in …People. It takes a lot of time to warm up, but The Siren can be charming in its understated manner. If you’re looking for overt scares and fast-paced action, this movie won’t satisfy you, but if you’re looking for a cerebral, existential slow burn you might enjoy it.
CURIOSITY KILLED THE COUNTRY
I recall that when I was a kid, while working at a Toys “R” Us, the break room lunch table was only populated by copies of ridiculous tabloids like the Weekly World News and The National Enquirer. I didn’t understand the situation initially, but I soon began to realize that the adults who worked there felt despondent about their lives and needed some entertainment to fuel their dreary day. The original publisher of the Enquirer, Genoroso Pope Jr., bought and turned his soon-to-be controversial paper into a gore and death publication in the fifties to tap into the public’s fascination with murder and mayhem. But when he aspired to run the largest newspaper in the country, he needed to expand and soon tapped into the supermarket set with the gossipy homemakers who would make up a substantial part of their audience thereafter.
Mark Landsman’s documentary Scandalous (2019) documents the rise of the Enquirer from a trash-filled tabloid into, for a brief time in the nineties, a more respectable media outlet that actually provided insightful reporting on such stories as the O.J. Simpson trial and the JonBenet Ramsey murder case. We also learn of the paper’s unsavory entanglements with people like Bill Cosby, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Donald Trump. What is most fascinating about this documentary is how so many former Enquirer staffers and editors look back on their time and try to downplay how their own opportunism and comfort with the jet-setting life seduced them into working for a paper whose journalistic ethics were always suspect. Symbolically, they are interviewed in lavish locations that are not their real homes (no journalist lives that well) and as an ironic statement on the larger-than-life nature of the paper and its work.
Scandalous also reveals very ugly truths about the intellectual underbelly of America. Many people simply love to read gossip, half-truths, and fantastic stories because they either want to believe such craziness, want to justify their own superstitions or beliefs, or worst of all, simple seek to turn their brains off. If one looks deep into our era of “fake news” and echo chamber politics on social media, it is easy to see how the Enquirer not only served as a serious symptom of a larger problem, but as one of the media conduits that led us to this very dark place we occupy now.
During the summer of 1989, I was a paid intern and script reader for Miramax Films, which was just starting to take off as an indie-film powerhouse. Even back then, Harvey Weinstein was a bully in the office, but I don’t think anyone had a real inkling of the sexual abuse and assault he had inflicted and would inflict upon women throughout his near four-decade tenure in the movie business. The Hulu documentary Untouchable examines his horrific behavior as his lust for power and sexual dominance drove him to manipulate, abuse, and rape women because he could get away with it and because no one else was going to stop him. The hardest moment in the entire film comes when we watch Hope Exiner D’Amore, his former assistant from his concert promoter days in Buffalo back in the seventies, fall apart on camera as she describes how he raped her in a hotel room well before he became a movie producer. It turns out he’d been doing these despicable things from the start.
Untouchable revisits plenty of information that has already been discussed in the media, but actually watching and listening to the stories from the victims directly is quite powerful, moving, and enraging. Then listening to the guilty recollections of certain former staffers at Miramax and the Weinstein Company, it becomes crystal clear how this man got away with everything. It came down to money and success, but also denial from many people who couldn’t believe any of this was truly happening. There are numerous stories that we miss out on, particularly Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd, and other #MeToo champions taking on Weinstein, not to mention the fact that Judd and Mira Sorvino’s careers were damaged by malicious gossip spread by the mogul after they refused his advances.
It’s hard to cram so much information into a 95-minute documentary, but director Ursula Macfarlane does a commendable job with the material that she has. Beyond the women being interviewed, journalist Ronan Farrow offers an enlightened male perspective about how powerful men continue to manipulate and abuse women. One thing becomes very clear by the end of this whole affair–that such people still exist out there and this problem is far from over. Untouchable is a good place to start delving into this Hollywood plague, and hopefully we will be seeing a lot of other films and hearing a lot of other voices because there’s a lot more work to be done.
THE WITCHER (Netflix, 2019) – Inspired by the book series of the same name by Andrzej Sapkowski, this series features a magical witch hunter (Henry Cavill) and a magical princess (Freya Allan) who find themselves linked by destiny. Sword and sorcery abound.
LOCKE & KEY (Netflix, 2020) – Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s long-running IDW comic book series has arrived in live action form. After the murder of the Locke family patriarch, the mother and three children move to his childhood home and learn of keys that can unlock various magical doors there. But a demonic presence also wants the keys for its own nefarious purposes.
DEVS (Hulu, 2020) – Show creator and director Alex Garland is a very underrated purveyor of sci-fi. He adapted Dredd and wrote and directed Annihilation and Ex Machina, the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination. In this series, a young software engineer (Sonoya Mizuno) suspects her boyfriend’s suicide is linked to her high-tech company’s secret development division.