Snowpiercer: silly social satire reveals a conservative and narrow view of human nature and potential for change

Joon-ho Bong, “Snowpiercer / Seolgugyeolcha” (2013)

Joon-ho Bong’s first outing in the English language is an enjoyably silly ride into the post-apocalyptic dystopian SF genre. Concerns about global warming in 2014 lead to governments agreeing to an audacious geo-engineering experiment in which jets spray crystals in the upper atmosphere. Scientists believe that these crystals are likely to cool the planet down sufficiently to avert the climatic extremes, unusual weather phenomena and all other natural disasters associated with climate change, temporarily at least. Damn right those boffins are: climate modifications plunge Earth into a new all-enveloping Ice Age and all life becomes extinct. Some several hundred humans manage to crowd onto a super-long train, powered by a perpetual-motion engine and built by the Wilford Corporation, headed by … who else? – the eponymous super-engineer Wilford (Ed Harris) himself. In order to get along, these humans have sorted themselves into a rigidly stratified society depending on the category of rail ticket they bought originally: the people who purchased the most expensive tickets obtain accommodation near the front of the train and get to enjoy lives of streamlined luxury and endless pleasure; those in business class have to do some work but still enjoy amenities appropriate for their money’s worth; economy class ticket-holders are mostly relegated to manual work serving the needs of the rich while some of their brothers and sisters who drew the short straws must serve as security guards to make sure the freeloaders in the crowded cattle cars at the back of the train stay in their allocated places.

In these cattle cars an elderly man Gilliam (John Hurt) and a younger passenger Curtis (Chris Evans) plot rebellion with their fellow Great Unwashed, especially after a number of children in their section have been whisked away by the security guards and taken to the front of the train. Their rebellion leads them through succeeding train carriages where they face implacable and bloodthirsty hooded guards in charge of the food vat (that supplies the freeloaders with protein blocks made from cockroaches) and the water-tank. The rebels collect a security guard Minsu Namgoong (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yuna from cryogenic chambers as Minsu is needed to open the gates and he won’t agree to go unless Yuna accompanies him. Needless to say, Curtis and Gilliam lose huge numbers of followers in their battles – in this degraded world, the art of negotiation and diplomacy has been lost – and at times the struggle is tedious and gory. Curtis loses his best friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Gilliam along the way.

The rebels collect a hostage, Mason (Tilda Swinton), who is responsible for enforcing the rules on the train, and force her to take them through the carriages where the upper class lead their lives of idle pleasure. They pause for rest at a sushi restaurant and in an elementary school where they observe the upper class children being indoctrinated with a belief system in which the train represents an iron Tree of Life and is their entire reason for living. To leave the train is to die and Wilford is to be regarded as a god.

By the time the rebels reach the engine-room, their numbers are whittled down to Curtis, Minsu and Yuna. Curtis meets Wilford who tells him some alarming home truths about himself (Curtis) and Gilliam: it turns out that on a regular basis, Wilford and Gilliam foment rebellion in the economy class cattle cars so as to give the security guards an excuse to cut down on overpopulation in the train carriages in the interests of sustainability. Curtis slowly realises that he has been groomed to head the rebellion and been allowed by the security guards – some of whom are so psychopathic that they can will themselves to rise from the dead! – to reach the engine-room where Wilford is waiting to pass on his mantle of overlordship.

As social satire “Snowpiercer” just about holds together: there are gaping plot holes where the stitching has come loose or was forgotten and parts of the film look as if they re-used old sets from recent Hollywood sci-fi efforts. The plot is a mess especially in its last half-hour where it piles on one twist after another: Curtis reveals his cannibal past to Minsu and Minsu and Yuna spend a lot of time fighting off a zombie security guard and hordes of angry upper class party-goers from some of the carriages while they desperately try to blow open an engine door with the industrial waste plasticine stuff that Minsu had been hoarding for many years. The acting ranges from barely adequate to hammy and in a film where the script has no brakes, character development is sketchy indeed. Swinton steals every scene she is in as the despot deputy and Alison Pill as the Stepford-Wife school-teacher is hilariously cartoonish and creepy. Hurt goes through his routine of wise geezer with a sinister secret. Kang-ho Song manages to inject some thoughtfulness into his one-dimensional role and Evans almost but not quite succeeds in making Curtis as something more than the stock character stereotype of an everyday man thrust unexpectedly into a revolutionary leadership role.

The technical details can be astonishing to behold on first viewing; repeated viewings though reveal the flat CGI landscapes outside the train and some of the interior sets appear to be hand-me-downs from other Hollywood blockbuster SF films and are in need of some imagination. The culture of the upper class moochers has barely changed since 2014; heck, much of it hasn’t changed since the turn of the century in 2000 – or the 1800s as Curtis discovers in horror when he and Yuna peek into the engine’s innards and see the cattle car children toiling in Dickensian conditions.

Plot as such is threadbare: the aim is to progress from the back of the train to the front and Bong treats us to a sociological survey of the train society as moulded by Wilford. Wilford’s vision of human nature is essentially Hobbesian and pessimistic: people are basically irrational, highly emotional creatures motivated solely by material pleasures but since the train’s capacity to carry what people need is very limited, everyone on the train has been shoe-horned into a highly stratified society in which socioeconomic inequality is vast. The folks in the over-crowded cattle car economy class are kept in a state of ignorance and are tightly policed. It obviously never occurs to Wilford to think that the more he represses the Great Unwashed, the more they will revolt; neither does he realise that if everyone was treated equally and received equal shares of food, clothing and material comforts, train society would be more peaceful, there would be less over-breeding in the cattle cars, and there would be no need for periodic purging of the population. This is where the film falls flat as an examination of society and reveals the essentially conservative mental paradigm about human nature and its potential for change  that prevails in Hollywood and by implication the rest of the United States. In this narrow worldview, the law of the jungle dominates, people solve problems with violence instead of negotiation, there is little pity for underdogs and those who overthrow the elite are expected to replace them as a new elite and society with all its social layers continues as before.

The film ends on a pessimistic note as (spoiler alert) the train’s engine door is blasted open, unleashing an avalanche in the mountains that stops and buries the train and leaves very few survivors.  Even if that hadn’t happened, there is still a punchline that all isn’t well with the train: Curtis and Yuna learn that the perpetual-motion engine powering the iron beast on its endless journey is wearing out and losing parts, and the children from the cattle car section have to substitute for needed spare parts. This horrific discovery spells out that Wilford’s utopia-turned-dystopia in which the endless search for material comfort and pleasure by a few ends up cannibalising humans and must eventually reach its telos. Whatever purpose Wilford and his corporation built the train for, beyond maintaining human survival, remains unknown: there is no suggestion in the film that the upper classes really have a better life spiritually than Curtis, Gilliam and their people do in their barracks-like conditions. An underlying message that some lives can be so lacking in purpose beyond material gratification that people living such lives might be just as better off dead as lives lived in sheer poverty and hopelessness is hard to miss.

 

 

Night Fishing: delving into the world of Korean shamanism and spirituality with an Apple iPhone 4

Park Chan-kyong, Park Chan-wook, “Night Fishing / Paranmanjang” (2011)

Filmed using an Apple iPhone4, this fantasy-horror film delves into the little understood world of Korean shamanism and spirituality, and the role they still have in modern Korean society. A fisherman (Oh Kwang-rok) working in a swampy area at night (a strange time to be out fishing) throws a line out into the water and almost immediately snags a good trout. He rushes over and next thing you know, he’s entangled in the line and falling on top of a drowned woman (Lee Jeong-hyeon). The woman gradually comes alive in a fairly comic scene and initially viewers think the man has choked and suffocated on all the water she threw up. The two recover and have a conversation, during which the woman starts rattling some bells on a staff (in Korean films, an indication that something isn’t quite what we expect it is) and begins to wail …

The version of the film I saw had no English-language sub-titles and was dubbed in Russian instead so I flat-out had no idea what the main characters plus the rest of the cast were talking about. However Western viewers will quickly work out that the young woman is an intermediary between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The scenes that take place in the world of the dead are filmed in black and white and those in the land of the living are in colour. A mother (Lee Yong-nyeo) and her wheelchair-bound daughter consult the young shaman as to why and how their husband / father died tragically. The shaman, after visiting the land of the dead, asks for forgiveness from the mother and child on behalf of the dead man.

The ceremony in which the shaman contacts the dead man and relays his message to the anxious family is marked by solemn droning music and the entire scene is intense and emotional. The bright colours heighten the drama of the ritual and actors Lee JH and Lee YN demonstrate remarkable restraint as well as almost histrionic emotion together. Lee JH in particular commands the viewer’s attention with her performance in a wooden tub filled with water and immediately afterwards, when she steps out to grab the child, in a highly theatrical act of spirit possession.

The film can be beautiful to watch, especially in its final scenes where there is a tranquil scene shot of a blue lake with a peaceful blue sky above followed by a number of painted scenes of perhaps important historic Korean personalities and saints that perhaps reference Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Andrei Rublev”. True to form, Park Chan-wook includes macabre humour early on, a twist in the plot and scenes of extreme emotional outpouring. The use of an iPhone 4 for filming gives the short the appearance of cinéma vérité: there is one scene filmed from some distance showing people preparing for a ritual in the shaman ceremony and viewers are given a taste of what it might feel like to be a voyeur spying on other people’s private sorrows.

The plot cannot sustain a length longer than 30 minutes and the fact that the twist is a major part of the film’s narrative and cuts it into two nearly equal halves that mimic eastern Asian philosophical and spiritual ideas of a universe in which polar opposites, represented by the yin-yang principle, govern its structure, means that “Night Fishing” does not bear very many repeated viewings by the general public. The film showcases Park Chan-wook’s  style of fantasy film-making and directing combined with his particular interpretation of how a Korean cultural tradition still grounds modern Korean society and allows people to express their frustrations, grief and troubles in dealing with personal crises.

Sleep Tight My Baby: one take is all it takes for an effective horror short

Pansu Kim, “Sleep Tight My Baby” (2001)

Very devastating film about a teenage girl trapped with a baby and quarrelling parents filmed in one continuous take; much of the film’s effectiveness is achieved simply by the movement of the camera which captures the changing mood of the story, and by the soundtrack which pushes the viewer to imagine the worst simply by the way it sequences an unseen baby’s wails and the sound of water pouring into a bath-tub. Initially the handheld camera moves too quickly for my liking but after Emma the girl sits on the couch and starts talking into her mobile phone, Kim’s control of the camera asserts itself and the camera starts to move more purposefully, flashing about once Mum and Dad charge into the lounge-room yelling at each other; and wildly rotating after they leave the house and the teenager lapses into a depression.

The surprise is that at a critical point in the film, Emma looks into the lounge-room from the corridor and sees a projection of herself dancing while holding the baby (Kim uses identical twins Jessica and Felicity Pell to play the girl) when in fact the viewer is fully aware of where the baby is and what has happened to it. The baby itself is never seen in the film; we only know of its existence because of its off-screen crying, the presence of the stroller and the striped blanket the child is wrapped in. The projection of Emma’s fantasy suggests despair and derangement enough to endanger the baby’s life: the dancing girl could be an angel or demon taking away the child. As if to reinforce this impression, Emma’s parents are seen in separate rooms doing cooking and ironing chores and smiling at their wayward daughter.

Although the film doesn’t look entirely credible in its details – not being seen, the baby must be assumed to be old enough to sit in a stroller yet young enough to be wrapped entirely in a blanket and Emma appears as too well-scrubbed to be a single mum – the tension and horror build up steadily thanks to the soundtrack which includes solo violin and piano melody that become frenzied. The house is made to look claustrophobic and creepy by the camera’s movements and close-ups of toys and other objects strewn about on the furniture seem to increase Emma’s isolation and alienation. The use of black-and-white film permits no warmth that might come from the colour of the furnishings.

A good example of a film whose story emerges from the skilful combination of camera movement in one take, sound and music … and the characters didn’t have to be all that good or sketched out! The twist in the story is that while the major characters dream of or try to escape, only one character can be said to have escaped a dreary domestic situation and unwillingly at that.

Silmido: excellent film about a series of incidents in South Korean history that has a universal resonance

Kang Woosuk, “Silmido” (2003)

Apparently based on actual incidents, this epic film ought to have been just a straightforward “Dirty Dozen” action film with a sketchy plot, loads of violence and boot-camp brutality, displays of macho camaraderie and a schmaltzy message about dying for your mates and country; “Silmido” is all of that on one level yet turns out to be more. Perhaps its Korean setting and the very contemporary nature of the politics invoked – the Korean War technically hasn’t finished – help shove the film into a realm audiences inside and outside the country can relate to but I’m not sure that explains the feeling I have that “Silmido” would affect a lot of people who have no knowledge of the country’s history in a very personal way.

The plot is easy to follow: in the late 1960s, after some North Korean agents have been captured and executed by South Korean military forces after confessing that they were on a mission to kill President Park Chunghee, the South Koreans themselves toy with the idea of sending men on a similar mission to kill North Korean leader Kim Ilsung. Under orders from the government, the army sends over 30 hardened criminals on death row and other outcasts to Silmido island to undergo a brutal training regime that will transform them into elite assassin force Unit 684. For much of the film, viewers are treated to harrowing if well-staged scenes of unrelenting Spartan training and often sadistic torture; the proceedings can be hard to watch sometimes and the film’s pace never lets up. When the men have been disciplined and honed into an efficient fighting force, the government orders change and the army is now faced with a fanatical killing machine it does not know what to do with.

The plot is mostly predictable: men who can’t handle the training drop out and there’s a token death; the army leaders and soldiers who train the would-be assassins are suitably granite-faced and apply the requisite beatings and excessive machine-gun fire punishments. There’s room for slapstick humour in one scene where a man runs into a river before his minder even has a chance to brand him with a hot poker! The music soundtrack is stirring and heroic to excess and there is plenty of Korean-style OTT melodrama; compared to other east Asians, Koreans have a reputation for being highly emotional and intense people and “Silmido” milks the emotional potential inherent in scenes between individual characters who have personal crosses to bear and old scores to settle.

Where the film really lifts its game is in what goes on between the army and the government represented by stock character stereotypes outside Silmido island: the general political situation changes, South Korea decides it’s better to co-exist with and even do deals with Kim Ilsung, and senior bureaucrats and politicians waive away the creation of Unit 684 as though the 31 remaining men in the unit are just so many flies to be swatted away. The hoplites’ loyalty to their country and fighting zeal count for nothing but their very testoterone-charged fanaticism, the bonds of loyalty among themselves and to their superiors, and their readiness to face death so that they can truly feel alive now make them a serious threat to South Korea’s security. At this point in the film, non-Korean viewers realise there are two ways to go: the plot could just let the men go off to North Korea with the army and government cynically figuring that the North Koreans can handle them their own way; or the men could self-destruct. As Koreans know already, the men do self-destruct but the ways in which they do it turn out quite unpredictably. Their demise is at once heroic and pathetic and the film’s coda is quietly powerful and depressing in a way that only skilful and clever Korean film-making can make it.

The incidents of “Silmido” are very particular to Korean history, so much so that I don’t expect Koreans born after the period of military rule (which ended more or less about the late 1980s or early 1990s) to know those events, but the film’s themes of political expediency, bureaucratic indifference, the cynical exploitation of loyalty, camaraderie and patriotism, a government’s inability to consider the consequences of creating a killing machine with only one short-term purpose in mind and the psychological effects that intense military training might have on people are surely issues that will resonate with viewers beyond Korea. Above all there is something exhilarating about men who, in training to face certain death, discover purpose and new life, and you can’t help but feel that in spite of their brutal training and psychological transformation, they experience a kind of freedom and become supermen, far beyond the confines of the society that originally produced them. Somewhere in the heavens above, Friedrich Nietzsche is smiling.

 

Doggy Poo: cute existential heartwarmer about the value of all creation

Kwon Ohsung, “Doggy Poo” / “Ganggajidong” (2003)

Here is a very sweet and beautiful little film about having purpose in life and being valuable in the greater scheme of things, even if you are a little, uh … a little piece of shit. In a rural part of South Korea, a small dog does his dump on the side of the road and leaves behind Doggy Poo, the cutest little turd you could ever avoid treading on or kicking. Doggy Poo is visited by various living and non-living beings including a lost lump of soil from a farm but all either reject him or leave him. Doggy Poo grows despondent from the ridicule and, as he can’t move at all, becomes very lonely as potential companions either avoid him or are taken away. The seasons pass, snow falls on him and melts away, a star streaks across the sky and Doggy Poo wishes that one day he too will be beautiful and bring beauty to all around him.

The early half of the film can be very dark as a couple of characters discuss death and having a purpose in life with Doggy Poo. The lump of soil laments causing the deaths of some pepper plants during a spell of hot, dry weather and is sure that the next time the ox-cart comes by, he will be crushed to death under its heavy wheels. The autumn leaf tells Doggy Poo that her life-span is short and that she has no control over her life as she must go wherever the wind takes her. These characters demonstrate a few philosophical views about the random and often cruel nature of life and natural systems. Some viewers who see the English-language version of “Doggy Poo” may object to the English-language opinions expressed by the lump of soil who mentions God quite a lot in his US Southern accent, seeing his views as indicating a Christian religious slant to the film. References to God may be just part of an awkward translation of the original Korean script: what the soil means to say is that everything that comes into the world has a purpose in life but only the Supreme Creator knows what is in store for Doggy Poo. The soil can only speak for himself but has no other knowledge of what other beings, living and inanimate, come into existence for.

The stop-motion clay animation looks very good and the later parts of the film in which seedheads of a dandelion disperse and float through the air and over the countryside and mountains are visually gorgeous and uplifting. The music, most of it plaintive piano melody, matches the drama well as Doggy Poo endures changes in weather and humiliating treatment from a hen and her chicks. The central character himself is very weepy and his little eyes spend much screen-time brimming with tears but his earnest nature, appreciation of the natural beauty around him and desire for meaning and company in his life are sure to win him many fans. For a doggy poo, he looks very well-scrubbed with smooth fat cheeks and a little wispy kink on his head and it may be no coincidence that his little poo pieces around him make him look like a toy dog splayed on the ground with paws sticking out in all directions. How cute!

Comparison with the famous Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Ugly Duckling” and maybe also that writer’s “The Little Mermaid” is obvious as Doggy Poo eventually realises his dream of becoming beautiful and finding companionship but this requires self-sacrifice on his part. Doggy Poo’s life and transformation might be seen as part of a Buddhist spiritual view of life: life is transient but is part of a cycle of birth, living, death and rebirth, and each step in the cycle may involve a transformation to something different, higher and more beautiful perhaps, depending on how one has lived one’s previous life.

Had this film been made outside South Korea, Doggy Poo would be looking for love, not purpose, in his life and the story would be much less effective and emotional and more queasily sentimental than it is. A Japanese treatment might have made Doggy Poo a more stoic and perhaps less appealing character and the treatment dished out to him by unfriendly birds might be more sadistic. It is quite possible that some politically conservative politicians, economists, academics and others may interpret and exploit the film as urging self-sacrifice on workers for the so-called “national good”.  We should worry if that happens for “Doggy Poo” is a deeply compassionate yet simple film about a lowly little shit who doesn’t ask for much, just some respect and a purpose that makes his mean lot in life worth enduring.

 

Spider Forest: amusing psych horror / art-house drama that maps an amnesiac mind’s networks

Song Ilgon, “Spider Forest” (2004)

Amusing if eccentric film that straddles a grey zone between art-house drama and psychological horror thriller, “Spider Forest” carries themes about the role of memory and memory networks in forming people’s identities and how the mind under amnesia tries to reconstruct identity and reality. It starts innocently enough looking like a psych horror / slasher flick in which a lone everyday man, Kang Min (Kam Woosung), by occupation a TV producer who makes a mystery show series, finds himself in a remote forest and sees a cabin some distance away. Walking and entering the cabin, Kang is horrified to discover the body of a man brutally and frenziedly hacked to death in one room and a dying woman in another part of the building. He recognises the woman as a friend, Suyoung, as she dies in his arms. Kang is then chased back into the forest by a shadowy intruder who beats him around the head with a bat. Dazed, Kang later stumbles into a traffic tunnel where he is hit by a car. The last thing he sees is a blurry image of someone looking down at him before he lapses into a coma.

When he wakes up again, Kang is in hospital. He requests that police investigate two murders in the forest, known as Spider Forest. Detective Choi (Jang Hyunsung) comes to see him in the hospital and Kang tells him what he knows. The police conduct a search of the cabin and identify the two dead people as persons Kang knows: the man is his ex-boss (Choi Sungha) at the TV station and the woman, Suyoung (Kang Kyunghun), is his co-worker with whom Kang had been having a romance.

From this point on, Kang, urged on by Choi, tries to remember the events leading up to his discovery of the bodies in the cabin in Spider Forest. People who Kang remembers from the past – his wife, for example, who died in a plane crash – intrude into his attempts to remember and retrace what happened that might lead Choi and the other police to the killer. Along the way Kang meets Sujin (Suh Jung), an enigmatic photography shop assistant, who may be an imaginary construct in his mind as it struggles to restore hiis “reality”.

The structure of the plot, moving from present to bits and pieces of the past that run in parallel and back, bouncing from one time period to another, revisitng various memories, mirrors the way Kang’s fractured mind works to restore his memories and sense of self. How much that is restored reflects actual reality and how much is or should be linked to the Spider Forest murders is the puzzle for viewers to consider. There’s the possibility that Kang’s mind is working to prevent him from feeling any guilt or responsibility for what happened in the cabin or to deny what part he might have played. Scenes in which Kang edits his TV show while it is broadcasting and his boss fires him for doing so among others suggest Kang has often avoided responsibility for serious mistakes or fled problems when they should be confronted. Denial definitely plays a part in his flight response: the legend Sujin tells Kang about a boy and a girl who witness a murder in the Spider Forest cabin turns out to be partly based on something that actually occurred in Kang’s childhood which forced him and his father to leave their community. Denial and avoidance thus became part of Kang’s mental arsenal of dealing with life and its problems at an early age.

Kang’s need to visit Spider Forest in spite of his injuries and the constant replay of death and murder in his mind suggest a growing realisation that he can no longer live his life by old mental habits and must face up to his ultimate responsbility, portrayed in the movie by what he discovers behind a metal door in a cave deep in Spider Forest in the climax. This is the loopiest (literally) scene in the movie, very much like what I’d expect to see in a David Lynch film, yet it makes good sense if “Spider Forest” is read as a film about memory, the process of remembering, and people learning to live with losses and to confront and tackle things and issues they have tried to deny or evade in the past.

There’s much visual beauty in the film, particularly in the daytime scenes filmed in the forest that serves as Spider Forest and in the scenes where Kang and Sujin take a ski-lift ride and are briefly suspended in the blue sky overlooking the mountain scenery. In the evening scenes, the forest appears as tall spindly ghostly beings that might well harbour creepy spiders (representing the dark niches of memory that store unpleasant secrets) and vengeful killers. The acting is understated with Suh Jung notable in playing two roles, the impassive, almost anaemic Sujin and the lively, laughing wife Eun-ah. Kam is impressive also, having to carry the entire film as a man having difficulties in accepting his wife’s death and being forced to face up to denial, failure and responsbility in his life, and then on top of all that, being knocked over physically and enduring serious head injuries and problems.

The atmosphere can be creepy and often has an ethereal, spiritual feel throughout the film. Some viewers may find the pace quite slow and the tension builds up little by little for a resolution to the murder that many people will be able to solve about halfway through the movie. Being billed as just a horror movie does “Spider Forest” no favour as, in spite of the name and the first several minutes, there’s really nothing about the film at all that fits the conventional horror movie template: calm, even laidback in some ways, the obvious “horror” aspects like the mysterious cellphone caller and the ghost forest appearance appearing like McGuffins that in the end add nothing to the plot, “Spider Forest” turns out to be a well-dressed and visually stunning art-house puzzle. Recommended for those with no preconceptions of what a psychological study / horror / art-house drama should run like, the movie should be seen at least twice or three times for its meaning to be properly understood.

Members of the Funeral: interesting film about a dysfunctional family of self-absorbed isolates

Baek Seungbin, “Members of the Funeral” (2008)

An interesting little gem from South Korea that’s flown under the radar of many movie websites, this film probes the relationships within a dysfunctional family whose members have been brought together, as if for the first time, by the funeral of a teenage boy not related to any of them. The plot explores the psychological histories of the husband (Oh Kwangrok, playing a medical professional in denial about his homosexuality and his need for, and to be, a father figure), his estranged wife (Park Myeongsin, a teacher with frustrated ambitions of being a writer) and their remote daughter Ami (Kim Byeol, a schoolgirl with a fixation bordering on necrophilia), and their separate and parallel relationships with the boy, Noh Heejun (Lee Juseung), a fatherless youngster with a flair for writing and a liking for 19th century English Romantic literature. Through Heejun, the three family members find some fulfilment of their desires, to the extent that they try to control him in ways they have learnt from their birth families and early experiences. With his death, they find themselves flung together unexpectedly and discover that the novel he has been writing about a creepy gay man, a teacher and girl is about them!

The movie’s themes can be creepy and sinister for a comedy which might perhaps explain why the film isn’t better known. The characters are hardly attractive people – teacher Mum is a particularly nasty piece of work (but she’s unconsciously emulating her misogynist grandfather literature professor after all) and the daughter’s facial expressions go from one kind of blank to the next kind of blank and the next – and only Heejun might elicit any sympathy at all from the audience as he goes from one family member to the next. The under-acting is deliberate so as to draw viewers’ attention to the characters’ isolation from one another with only Heejun uniting them all. The notion that people in a family can be so self-absorbed and estranged from one another that none of them knows what the others get up to and can’t recognise themselves or their relatives in a schoolboy’s novel makes for a very dark comedy rich in its observation of alienated individuals and their secret hopes, desires, thwarted ambitions, friendships gone forever and lost opportunities.

Admittedly the film is low on tension and its pace can be slow. Viewers might wonder, particularly with the daughter who spends her spare time in the office of a pathologist (the father of a childhood pal who died young) looking at dead bodies, if the film’s going to turn into a B-grade K-horror flick with the girl and Heejun being chased by the childhood pal’s soul through dark streets and alley-ways. There is very little violence though and the film is more quietly gruesome than horrific. How the plot resolves itself in its weaving, side-stepping way, and what the family members will do when confronted with the truth about their secrets, is the thing that has to sustain viewers’ attention to the end; some viewers might find the jumping around from one character’s viewpoint to another’s a bit tiresome and pretentious. Personally I had no problem, perhaps because knowing the characters’ back-stories and how these fed into their obsessions and attempts to manipulate Heejun for their own gain was in itself intriguing.

From a technical point of view, the film can be a little annoying with parts filmed with a hand-held camera; close-ups of actors’ faces while conversation is going on are often jerky when they should be still. This jerkiness might be intended to add some tension to particular scenes, especially those scenes in which the teacher is criticising Heejun and his writing. The jerkiness seems to emphasise the woman’s enjoyment of unnecessarily tearing strips off the boy.

Quite a likeable film in spite of the often unpleasant issues touched on and well worth repeated viewings. “Members of the Funeral” features some excellent acting performances and first-time director Baek shows some flair for unusual narrative and inventive story-telling, if he can only keep the camera steady!

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring: lovely to look at but hollow

Kim Kiduk, “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring” (2003)

Presented in five episodes that mimic the yearly cycle of the seasons, this film follows a man’s path from his early childhood through adolescence and youth into middle age. Adopted by a hermit monk who lives at a Buddhist shrine on a tiny island in a lake in remote mountainous country, the man grows up close to nature and learns Buddhist doctrine and contemplation; his upbringing, worthy though it is, fails him when as a teenager he is confronted with sexual and other desires when a girl his age stays at the shrine temporarily to recover from an unknown illness. He elects to leave the srhine to follow the girl into the wider world. He marries her but she later deserts him for another man and he kills her. Returning to the shrine, he attempts suicide but is thwarted by the monk who forces him to repent of his sin. Detectives come to take the man to justice and prison and the monk himself then commits suicide.

The story is beguilingly simple and straightforward with very little dialogue and almost no conversation: nearly every utterance is a statement that underlines some aspect of the action on screen. The cinematography makes great use of fixed shots set at some distance from the actors to show their interactions with objects or the natural environment together with some close-ups, as though to show that, no matter how much humans isolate themselves, their environment and by extension the wider world of human society and relationships will encroach on them. By killing himself, the monk acknowledges perhaps that he has done as much for his disciple as he can and from now on the disciple must be his own teacher and learn from his experiences as well as remember his lessons. The world of the shrine and its surrounds, beautiful though it is – the cinematography emphasises the beauty, colour and vivids moods of nature throughout the year – can’t encapsulate all the man needs to know about life in order that he might more fully appreciate what the monk has tried to teach him.

The cyclical nature of life which  renews itself is emphasised in frequent shots of snakes (an age-old symbol of renewal) and fish, and in an unexpected twist towards the end of the movie when the man has returned to the shrine after serving time in prison: a woman visits him and leaves her baby son behind. She has an accident that is partly the man’s fault and the man is left alone to bring up the child. We can presume that the child as he grows up will repeat the man’s experiences; the challenge is whether the man might be a different teacher, perhaps more forgiving or less forgiving, more inclined to punish or less inclined, based on his experiences, than his teacher was.

Director Kim Kiduk’s narrow focus on the story, with all the action centred in the shrine and its surrounds, leaves out a great deal about the hermit monk and his disciple which audiences have to assume for themselves. The two actually have some interaction with the outside world: they acquire a rooster and a cat during the course of the film and the monk does get supplies from the outside world. During one such shopping trip, he learns about his disciple’s crime from the newspaper wrapping around some food. This narrowed focus, while intended to relay a story of change and renewal (and with it, faith, hope and the possibility of reincarnation), gives very little insight into the motivations and behaviour of the monk, disciple and other characters; in particular, we have no idea why the old monk commits suicide and we are left to speculate on possible reasons ranging from despair to resignation at the disciple’s behaviour.

As a result, there is something empty and unsatisfying about this film and there is an underlying misogyny that is disturbing as well. Though the film offers hope in the form of a new acolyte, it also suggests that the youngster might well follow the man a little too closely in his ways and the man may offer much the same advice to the young ‘un about love, lust and life as his mentor did. The same mistakes may be repeated, the cycle of life and renewal may continue but do humans, can humans, learn from others’ mistakes so as not to repeat them, or not to repeat them the same way?

The Host (dir. Bong Joonho): political and social commentary combine with strong characters in monster flick

Bong Joonho, “The Host” (2006)

Often billed as a horror film, “The Host” actually has as much comedy, drama and suspense thriller as it has horror. The emphasis is on one family’s efforts against great obstacles, more human than non-human, to rescue its child from a mutant monster. Hero of the movie, Gangdu, played by Song Kangho, one of South Korea’s top actors, is a most unconventional one: the black sheep of his family, not too bright and dozing off a lot, he seems a pathetic outsider in a society that values worldly achievement and success over human values. When his teenage daughter Hyunseo (Ko Asung) is captured by the scaled-up fish freak, Gangdu becomes single-mindedly determined to save her and rallies his father and two siblings against formidable odds. The family is arrested and imprisoned by government authorities; when they break out, they are declared dangerous and have a huge price on their heads. Together and separately, Gangdu and his siblings undergo trials that often end in failure in their attempts to get Hyungseo back home.

Bong’s direction creates a very moving story about the heroism of individuals, singly and together, in striving to achieve something despite overwhelming social and political resistance against them and repeated failures. Gangdu and his family often act before they think and their planning is more impulsive than considered; a lot of time and effort gets wasted and someone dies before they think of linking Hyunseo’s desperate cellphone calls to her location. There’s a subtext too that criticises South Korea’s subservient relationship to the United States: the monster itself is a creation of an unintended science experiment when a science lab worker is ordered by his American supervisor to pour a mix of chemicals down a sink in violation of lab procedures. The chemicals go untreated into the Han river which flows through Seoul. Years later when the monster starts its rampage through parts of the city, the US military tells the government to detain everyone who’s had contact with the monster under the guise of preventing a virus outbreak. Society is forced into lockdown and people’s rights and freedoms are suppressed. This forces Gangdu and his siblings to become fugitive outsiders in order to rescue Hyunseo. Western audiences at least get the message about how even the mere threat of “terrorism”, biological or other, can serve as an opportunity for governments to clamp down on democracy and what should be the rule of law.

As Gangdu, Song virtually carries the film on his shoulders and gives his comic, clownish character great emotional depth and inner strength that make his feats credible. Dim-witted and lazy he may be but Gangdu often exhibits animal cunning in evading or tricking the authorities. Park Hae-il gives excellent support as Gangdu’s unemployed uni graduate brother who initially looks down on Gangdu but becomes a minor hero in risking his freedom to locate Hyunseo through her cellphone calls and in trying to kill the monster. These characters help to keep the film going during its last hour when the plot sags with Gangdu’s recapture by the authorities and his sister (Bae Duna) knocked cold by the monster.

As in many of Bong’s films, the cinematography is often brilliant with incredible shots of the river and the huge concrete bridge where the monster hides among the pylons. The creature’s habitat becomes an important part of the film’s winding plot which begins and ends near the bridge and makes frequent visits there.

It seems that whenever Bong turns his attention to a particular movie genre, be it horror, murder mystery or whatever, the result always enriches and transcends the genre in some way. The film ends up a subtle critique of South Korean society, its history and its obsession with a certain set of rules and values that don’t make allowances for underdogs or nonconformists. While Bong clearly sympathises with people like Gangdu who operate more on instinct and intuition than on intelligence and who are often at odds with society, his view of society isn’t idealistic and there is irony in the way the monster is finally vanquished: a dangerous chemical Agent Yellow supplied by the US army is needed to weaken it before it can be killed.

Memories of Murder: masterpiece film about rival detectives in a corrupt society

Bong Joonho, “Memories of Murder” (2003)

A sober film based on actual events about a group of detectives in rural South Korea investigating a series of grisly rape-murders in the late 1980’s, “Memories of Murder” was the second movie directed by Bong Joonho and is ample evidence of his talent. The plot is very tight and well-paced and the film moves (if perhaps a little slowly and less noisily for fans of American TV crime thrillers) confidently to a stunning conclusion which confirms the viewer’s suspicions that arise about the characters and the crime investigation during the course of the movie, and what the suspicions imply about the nature of South Korean society during the period in question. Along the way the viewer gets the sense of an inevitable culture change from an authoritarian culture based on coercion and unquestioning respect for authority and hierarchy to a culture based on reason, the questioning of authority and tradition, and the use of abstract principles as a basis for behaviour and action, skilfully embedded in the familiar crime-show device of pairing two detectives from different backgrounds and with varying temperaments – the “mismatched buddies” – as the country-bumpkin police are joined by a city-slicker investigator from Seoul who brings more up-to-date skills and knowledge on how to pursue the investigation.

Early on we realise that detective Park (Song Kangho) and his colleagues aren’t up to the job of finding the serial rapist/killer when, in investigating the first murder, they accidentally destroy much of the crime scene evidence. Park makes a list of likely suspects and quickly zooms in on the local teenage village idiot Kwangho (Park Noshik) who he and his sidekick Cho (Kim Raeha) bring in for questioning and torture to get a false confession. Detective Suh (Kim Sangkyung) arrives from Seoul to assist the investigation and quickly determines that Kwangho is innocent and sets him free. Though Suh and Park are supposed to work together, mutual suspicion of their methods and approach prevent them from doing so, at least until Suh’s predictions that the killer will strike again and again come true. The detectives chase a number of leads, miss important evidence due to their brawling, arrest another innocent man and then, more by good luck and accident, discover the man (Park Haeil) who may actually be the killer. Autopsy evidence also comes the investigators’ way but they must send the semen samples and the new suspect’s DNA to the US as the appropriate skills and technology are lacking in South Korea.

Park and his country colleagues distinguish themselves early on as inept, lazy, stupid and brutal police overwhelmed by crimes the like of which they have never experienced and which all their knowledge and skill are inadequate to deal with. The viewer soon realises these men have been made the way they are by their society. In the 1980’s South Korea was a highly authoritarian society with a military government; there was little accountability and transparency in government activities affecting the people, and secrecy, corruption, incompetence and an expedient “whatever it takes” attitude to getting things done, leading to bullying, bribery, blackmail and violence, would have been rampant. Institutions responsible for law and order would have been infected by such a culture and the film demonstrates in its later half the public’s resentment of the police for their incompetence and brutality, particularly in scenes in which a drunken Cho causes a ruckus in a local restaurant and the diners leap onto him, causing him to have an injury that results in tetanus and leads to his lower leg being amputated.

Interestingly as the investigation drags on with little to show for progress and the murders continue relentlessly (curiously the public shows few signs of panic and concern but maybe that’s because the killings are being covered up deliberately), Park adopts some comical and pathetic methods of gathering evidence, including consulting a shaman who advises leaving a sheet of mud at the scene of the most recent crime (the mud supposedly forms an image of the killer’s face). At the same time, Suh, frustrated with the people and the organisational culture he has to work with, and the lack of help from outside, resorts to more violent methods of getting results. Viewers can see quickly how good police officers, eager and idealistic at first, become disheartened and disillusioned and end up being absorbed into the culture of violence and intimidation within the police force when the central bureaucracy, interested in looking good rather than being good, is unwilling to supply adequate back-up, resources, education and training to officers in the field. (And the serial killer often cunningly commits his crimes during siren calls when everyone, including the police, must stay indoors.) Eventually Park and Suh do co-operate together after previous temper flare-ups and fights in the office but it’s a case of “too little, too late” and Park eventually realises that even with modern and traditional methods of fighting crime, he and Suh are too far in over their heads with the resources and back-up they have, and that Suh is being corrupted by the stress of the difficult investigation and the failure of the authorities to support them.

As I’ve come to expect of him, Song is an excellent actor here as Park, in turns belligerent, comic, violent and, later in the film, capable of some insight into his behaviour and the situation he is thrust into. He sees that his use-by date has come and gone and it’s time for him to get out of detective work and start afresh. The question is whether Suh can realise the same thing as well and get out before he is too brutalised by police work and ends up another violent cypher in the system. All other actors around Song rise to the challenge of bringing a difficult and thought-provoking real-life CSI story to life and all do a great job. There are moments of humour and comedy as well as sheer horror and tension in the film and these demand versatile actors to carry them off successfully; with Song at the helm, film directors have much of their work done already, as he has a substantial track record of playing multi-faceted characters who can be comic and serious at the same time and it’s no big surprise that directors like Jong and Park Chanwook have frequently called on Song to play the lead in several films and that audiences outside South Korea readily recognise him as his home audiences do.

Visually the film is a treat to watch with beautiful and often moody background scenery of golden fields, lush green grass and dark, wet forests at night, depending on the plot’s requirements, to portray the countryside of South Korea as it might have appeared in the 1980’s. Attention to historical detail in background scenes and the technology used in the 1980’s, the detectives often relying on mini-cassette recorders to record interviews, looks impeccable. The film is almost entirely in flashback and all flashback scenes are in mostly dull shades of earth-based colours: brown, yellow, green and blue with the odd splash of red that calls attention to the serial killer’s quirks.

I’d say if you’ve never seen movies about crime scene investigations and you want to see at least one, try “Memories of Murder” first. It is a historic drama set in a particular period of South Korea’s history when the country was about to undergo a great political transformation from military rule to genuine democracy so there’ll be much that audiences outside that country won’t understand. It would be worthwhile for people to learn some recent Korean history to understand why and how South Korea had a military government in those days and how reviled it was in spite of past achievements in transforming the country from war-torn poverty to an industrial nation. As a film about detectives investigating a series of hideous crimes that they are woefully under-equipped for and which takes a heavy toll on them, it’s mesmerising viewing. One of the four most popular movies for cinema-goers in South Korea in 2003, the film is currently being remade in southern India in the Tamil language with a 2011 release date.

The actual series of crimes on which “Memories of Murder” is based remains unsolved and there were calls within the South Korean government in 2006 to have the statute of limitations extended to enable police to find the murderer.