Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Memories of Murder: Part VII - The Host

Bong Joon-ho is a filmmaker who is meticulous and knows what he is doing at all times, his intelligence and acute understanding of the needs of Korean audiences have made him incomparably successful in the theatre of contemporary Asian cinema.  With Memories of Murder he took the image of the emasculated male and he subverted and subjugated it and yet at the same time deified it to created a box office sensation that was choke-full of sociological pertinence.  His next film was even more successful and possibly more ambitious, certainly from a technical standpoint.  Essentially he took his lens and did for the South Korean melodrama what he had already done for masculine identity with Memories.  The Host is the highest-grossing Korean film of all time, and still sits comfortably on that laurel.  lt is a difficult film to label; when it was released overseas it was billed as a Jaws-like monster movie but to simplify it to that level does it a great injustice.  At its core it is a family melodrama that is punctuated and informed by the genre’s lengthy evolution in Korean cinema.  It is also monster movie, a comedy, and a political and social critique.  Song Kang-ho, although no longer employed within the civil service, reprises his stereotype as the post-traumatic emasculated male.  Here he is Park Gang-du, who runs a riverside store hut with his father, the archetypal family head, who was also in Memories playing the local chief inspector.  Song Kang-ho's character also has a young daughter and two siblings: a sister, who is a gifted archer and an alcoholic brother.

The family 'grieving' the loss of their youngest
The family is most definitely scarred. There is no mother as she has died, and the young daughter's mother ran off after she was born.  The archer sister is an extremely talented but intensely reserved individual who crumbles under the slightest amount of pressure.  The brother is a former student activist who has now more or less been cast out of society and idles his time drinking on unemployment. The father is also a mess and probably most like Gang-du, he desperately tries to keep the family together and attempts to stop all the in-fighting.  Whenever he opens his mouth, his demeanor seems to suggest the temperament and nobility of a wise old man but after a sentence or two the spectator along with his children recognize an old crackpot who takes himself more seriously than everyone else does.  The granddaughter is mortified by her embarrassing father and serves to represent a bored generation that has little respect for their parents; however she is portrayed in a positive light as she would likely outfox the whole bunch.  The narrative unfolds when a monster emerges from the Han River and after going on a rampage, steals the daughter.  Then against the oppressive and bumbling military rule which is attempting to contain the situation, as well as the antagonizing influence of the American military, the family draws together to retrieve their youngest and most valuable family member.  The film is extremely sophisticated in its approach to a plotline that could easily veer off course but it carries on with verve and winds up being so entertaining that it is totally irresistible.  The film, just like Memories, succeeds enormously in representing the Korean family and the engrained obstacles that it must face as a unit. "Commercially driven Korean melodramas serve to illustrate some of the defining features of Korean films and the societal contexts in which they are produced".

Song Kang-ho in The Host
The Host also displays a certain and very recent trend in South Korean, namely the process of using multiple genres within the same narrative and successfully creating post-modem and accomplished works of entertainment whose main focus is to deal with certain sociological and historical issues. Another such film is the delightfully off-kilter Save the Green Planet (2003), which involves aliens, a punk version of Over the Rainbow, extreme torture and a swarm of killer bees “Korean filmmakers found that by blending and bending existing genres, they could create works that appealed to audiences who wanted something new”.  The Host has been the most successful of these films and to date the most fully realized.  The film is highly melodramatic and manipulative but steers us very smoothly to certain emotions and conclusions on certain sociological issues that pervade the narrative and all the while it is highly amusing.  By blending these different genres, the hybrid that has resulted, much like the monster (or The Host of the title), is clear evidence of the "transmutation of historical genres that engage this process of recuperation".

The film's narrative ends with the death of the girl in a show down which harkens back to the brutal student demonstrations of the 1980s, it is highly emotional and while it is set in the present, it does bring us back to that time.  The loss of the new generation as well as the  destruction of the eldest generation (as the patriarch also perishes in the narrative) leaves the 684 generation forced to band together and face their own traumas without the help of others.  However, the film's coda makes light of this as a year later the events are replayed on the news but those watching turn it off as they are too busy filling their bellies.

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