Du-na Bae

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000, Bong Joon-ho)

Bong’s first film is unique, not just of Korean cinema, but of most. It’s a mostly lyrical piece–lyrical in the storytelling sense, not the filmmaking (there are only a couple of stylized moments in the film)–juxtaposing Lee Sung-jae and Bae Du-na. Lee’s a grad student trying to become a professor, Bae’s an office assistant in his apartment complex. Bong ties them together–and relates to the film’s title–through the incidence of a missing dog. (Lee took it–for barking–and Bae’s trying to help find it). But Bong also ties them together through the film’s tone. It’s an examination of listlessness and unnamable wishes. The film’s incredibly delicate for how outrageous it occasionally gets and some of Bong’s conclusion nears Danny Rose caliber, which is rather high for a first time filmmaker.

Although Lee’s ostensibly more the main character, the film rests with Bae. She carries it, especially through the sections where Lee is after one dog or another (the barking is irritating him). Bae maintains a tranquility as the story occasionally goes crazy around her. Bong’s tone helps a lot, of course, but Bae’s silence–much like Lee’s wife (finding the actors names–on an English page anyway–for the film is proving impossible)–often does a lot more than talking would accomplish.

Googling around, looking for those names, I’m seeing Barking Dogs Never Bite described as a black comedy. The label works to some extent, but about halfway through, it stops applying… Bong takes the film to a further level (that one evoking Broadway Danny Rose). For example, as funny as one long sequence about a ghost in the boiler room gets, it’s nowhere near as effective–in terms of triggering the viewer’s imagination–as a sequence involving a bet and a roll of toilet paper. Similarly, while Lee spends lots of his time alone and his wife doesn’t–from my bilingual fellow Korean film enthusiasts–merit a name transliteration, the relationship between the couple (she’s pregnant and working) is the spine running through the film. At the beginning, Bong doesn’t establish Lee as married and the marriage’s importance becomes gradually lucid even after it’s introduced… it’s another one of the film’s delicacies.

Bong ends the film well after a possibly rocky third act. It’s a deft save, when he brings in a little stylization and hits that Danny Rose moment. I keep trying to come up with a sentence to capture both its impressiveness as a first film, but also to disregard that impressiveness since the compliment seems like it’s qualifying the film’s quality, which I do not want to do.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Bong, Song Ji-ho and Derek Son Tae-woong; directors of photography, Cho Yong-kyou and Jo Yeong-gyu; edited by Lee Eun Soo; music by Jo Sung-woo; production designer, Lee Hang; produced by Cho Min-hwan; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Lee Sung-jae (Yun-ju), Bae Du-na (Hyeon-nam), Byeon Hie-bong, Kim Ho-jung and Kim Roe-ha.


The Host (2006, Bong Joon-ho)

If the original Godzilla (the Japanese version, before Raymond Burr) was about the United States as a nuclear power, The Host is a metaphor for the United States as a terrorist state. Or maybe it’s not a metaphor. It’s just about a situation involving Americans and they act with complete disregard for the safety of people and then go and terrorize them for no reason… Yeah, a metaphor suggests it’s coy. The Host is very straightforward in its portrayal of the United States and its foreign policy, which makes the film’s upcoming U.S. release a mystery to me. It’s a release for critics mostly, some way to get knowledge of Korean films out there. I don’t know. I can’t figure it out.

But the politics aren’t the center of The Host, they’re just reality. People who’d seen it at festivals touted it online as the superior giant monster movie, but that blurb is a bit of a misnomer. While the film does feature a giant (well, not too giant, about the size of a bus) monster, it’s not really a giant monster movie because it doesn’t follow the rules. With the exception of that original Godzilla, these films tend to fetishize the monster, because it’s the special effects feat. This fetishization goes back to the 1925 Lost World, because the monster was the deal. The films are about seeing what the monster will do. Deviations from this norm are usually considered failures (and sometimes, to be fair, are failures). The Host isn’t about what the monster’s going to do–seeing that exciting special effect–but about the effect of the monster. The Host is one of the most sensitive films I’ve seen–probably the most sensitive Korean film I’ve seen. It’s almost indescribably affecting. From maybe thirty minutes in, there’s one thing going on and the film drags you through it.

I’ve seen director Bong’s other big film, Memories of Murder, and while it’s a good film, The Host is far beyond my expectations. As a director, Bong is quiet and direct. He’s delicate, actually. The Host is a delicate film, not because it might break, but because it might break you. At times it’s a father-son film, a brother film, a father-daughter film, a comedy, an action film, but it mixes all these elements without detriment, because they’re the traditional terms for things like what is going on in The Host. It’s its own film, so I’m sort of handicapped by the terminology. Korean films tend to defy easy genre assignment (my favorite new genre from Korean films, however, will always be the sexual harassment comedy) and, while The Host is no different in that respect, it takes it to a new level. It is, as I said before, indescribable (in a very, very good way).

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Bong, Baek Chul-hyun and Ha Won-jun; director of photography, Kim Hyung-ku; edited by Kim Seon Min; music by Lee Byung-woo; production designer, Ryu Seong-hie; produced by Choi Yong-bae; released by Showbox.

Starring Song Kang-ho (Kang-du), Byeon Hie-bong (Hie-bong), Park Hae-il (Nam-il), Bae Du-na (Nam-ju) and Ko Ah-sung (Hyun-seo).


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