Bong Joon-ho is the guy who made Memories of Murder, which came to North American audiences in 2005 and made a lot of top 10 lists, including mine. That film was a minor revelation, doing for the police procedural what Claude Chabrol once did for the suspense film, reinventing it at its center and around the fringes yet somehow staying faithful to its essence.
The latest is ostensibly a monster film, but also undergoes an intelligent reworking. Glaringly stylized moments link to form a plausible whole. It begins on a note of lightly comedic dysfunctional domesticity, then suddenly, a rampaging mutant monster is interrupting a quiet Korean afternoon. It works on that monster movie level, complete with suspense music cues, Alien-type creature-anthropomorphizing and sacrificed heroes in true action movie style, but…
What Bong seems to be doing — and it’s not obvious right away as the film pursues several narratives simultaneously — is using a free-flowing palette of genres. A scene where the oddball family is grieving over the presumed death of a child family member at the claws of the strange beast begins with a tone of poignant grief then goes slapstick without breaking a sweat.
When asked how he felt being called Korea’s Steven Spielberg, Bong Joon-ho remarked that he was flattered but wondered whether Spielberg would appreciate it. I think he’s got it backwards. Bong has a Spielbergian touch with grand scale apocalyptic frights, but a dramatist’s touch with dialogue and pacing when handling familial dynamics. In place of Hollywood schmaltz, there are thoughtfully conceived layers of humor, political relevance and a brilliant satire of American Imperialism to boot. That Spielberg guy is still just a very skilled genre director — in the early stages of his career Bong Joon-ho is so much more.
Opens March 9 at Landmark Sunshine