Instead of The Host's marauding many-ton guppy, the movie's beasts are canine and domestic. But there are clear hints of what's to come in Bong's career. The director's eye for bright yellow symbolism and affinity for characters who work in cramped Kwik-E-Marts and offices are already apparent. A shot of a row of cement walls within the basement of the movie's apartment building will be echoed in The Host by an eerie, signature glimpse of the creature distending its lassolike tail under a bridge to go for another murderous dip.
"Nobody in this country follows rules since the liberation," one character proclaims in Barking Dogs Never Bite, but Bong's 2003 fact-based follow-up, Memories of Murder, shows that the era of Chun Doo-wan's dictatorship was certainly no better equipped with siren calls and an endless variety of misused police force, it's the perfect oppressive backdrop for South Korea's first serial killer. Memories seems to obey every basic conceit of serial killer suspense films while enriching and subverting the genre. (The smartest character is a briefly glimpsed female detective whose insight is ignored by the warring male leads.) When Memories had its first SF engagement in 2004, I praised Bong's ability to fashion a thriller into a societal and political indictment, even likening it to M. At the time I wondered if such praise was too lavish, but now I only regret not noting the influence of the aforementioned Kurosawa, whom Bong has cited as one contemporary. Kurosawa's peak efforts, 1997's Cure and the 2001 Japanese version of Pulse, don't strive for or possess the pop appeal of Bong's work, but Bong has learned plenty from their maker's keen critical knowledge of film history and contemporary madness. Memories is also the first time he proves commercial strictures can be trampoline flexible in terms of revealing individual and group character.
The Host is the Spielberg movie that Spielberg never made, the one where E.T. and the shark from Jaws are fused together into a rampaging tragicomic beast that doubles as an entire country and even a globe overrun by the toxins of US military paranoia. (It's also a perfect antidote to War of the Worlds' abundant US-centric phoniness.) Each member of the film's core ragtag family, including Bong regulars such as the always endearing Bae Du-na (from Barking Dogs) and the less famous, underrated Park Hae-il (hauntingly fierce in Memories and better in Park Chan-ok's Jealousy Is My Middle Name), is as nuanced as Homer Simpsonesque protagonist Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), who undergoes wild tortures because he refuses to stop telling the truth. The anarchic hilarity and horror of the creature's first rampage in The Host are more than matched by Park's family, whose grieving turns slapstick in an uproarious follow-up scene. One suspects Bong has as many tales as The Host's creature has tails. This convert can't wait to see more of them. *
AN EVENING WITH BONG JOON-HO
Mon/5, 6:30 p.m. Memories of Murder; 9:45 p.m. Barking Dogs Never Bite; $9$11
2261 Fillmore, SF