Bong Joon-ho – The Early Works

Not infrequently I find myself paralysed by choice when it comes to deciding what to read or watch next. There are so many different interesting things out there that I can’t decide which way to turn. After my last post I found myself vanishing into one of those decision spirals. Thankfully my review of Strong Girl Bong-soon sparked off some fun exchanges about Korean TV and film on Facebook, giving me a hook to haul myself back out of the indecision whirlpool. My first Bong Joon-so film was The Host [Gwoemul] (2006), a mixture of monster movie and social satire which greatly impressed, but it’s only in the last few months that I’ve begun to fill in the gaps in his filmography. Last year I finally caught up on Parasite [Gisaengchung] (2019) and Mother [Madeo] (2009) (reviewed here). This time I’ve gone back to the beginning to watch his first two films, each of which resonates thematically with those more recent works.

Bong’s directorial debut Barking Dogs Never Bite [Flandersui Gae] (2000) is a difficult film to categorise and was a flop on its initial release, likely due at least in part to confused marketing. Originally titled A Higher Animal but forcibly renamed by its domestic distributors, the trailer tries to sell it as both an action-thriller and a madcap comedy, neither of which are at all accurate (although it is at least a comedy of sorts). Seen in the context of his later career, its themes clearly look forward to his best known film, the internationally feted Parasite, but where the latter film explores the inequities of Korean society by directly contrasting the privileged and the downtrodden, Barking Dogs Never Bite is firmly situated within the ranks of the economic underclasses.

The story is set primarily in the same apartment complex the director and his wife inhabited while he was still trying to break into film. Ko Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) is an unemployed humanities graduate whose faith in the fairness of the system caused him to be passed over for a professorial position in favour of a less-qualified graduate who bribed the dean. He spends most of his days languishing in the apartment while his pregnant wife Eun-sil (Kim Ho-jung) works all day for a barely adequate wage, causing their marriage to become increasingly strained. Driven to distraction by a neighbour’s incessantly yapping dog, upon spotting an unattended Shih Tzu lurking outside another apartment he snaps and attempts to throw it off the roof of the building. When he’s interrupted by the appearance of an elderly tenant (Kim Jin-goo) laying out radishes to dry in the sun, he instead takes the dog down to the basement and locks it into a cupboard. (It’s worth noting at this point that, although no animals were harmed in the making of the film, there are some scenes which dog lovers might prefer to avoid.) Shocked to hear the yapping again the following day, he discovers that the old lady’s min pin was the guilty party. He attempts to correct his mistake after learning that the Shih Tzu was the beloved companion of a little girl and was incapable of barking due to a throat operation, but by the time he returns to the basement the janitor (Byun Hee-bong) has begun to prepare it as his dinner.

Park Hyun-nam (Bae Doona) is a poorly-motivated bookkeeper working in the estate management complex who dreams of breaking out of her drudgery by becoming famous, perhaps via some sort of viral footage of personal bravery. She’s also responsible for authorising residential flyers for, say, missing animals (although technically residents aren’t allowed to own pets). Standing on top of an adjacent building and playing with her friend Yoon Jang-mi’s (Go Soo-hee) binoculars, she witnesses a disguised Yun-ju throwing the min jin from the roof. Horrified at this new evidence of serial canicide, she rushes across to the other building and gives chase but is narrowly thwarted in her pursuit by an untimely door in the face. Motivated both by desire for justice and longing for fame, she devotes her time to the pursuit of the dognapper at the expense of her work. Meanwhile, a temporarily relieved Yun-ju receives an unpleasant surprise when his wife comes home with a toy poodle. Inadvertently losing it the following day, he inevitably crosses paths with Hyun-nam (who never saw his face) as the various character threads continue to tangle.

The meticulous care Bong Joon-so takes in constructing his films is already evident here, carefully timing the release of information to each character and layering in repeated visual motifs. The plot itself, while engaging in its own right, is largely there to provide a setting to observe the various ways in which those left behind by society strive to find meaning or inject happiness into their lives. Almost all of the bad-tempered or abusive behaviour on display can ultimately be traced back to the pressure of ever-present financial stresses. Yun-ju’s obsession with the barking dog is largely an outlet for the lack of control he has over his own life, with his repeated failures serving to underline that very lack of control. It’s only through his recognition of the roles that the three dogs play in other people’s lives – a flouting of arbitrary societal restrictions in order to seize a small piece of happiness and companionship – that he is able to recognise their commonalities, mend his relationship with his wife and move on with his life. Even so, the visual echo of his first and last appearances in the film suggests a yearning which can’t be met within the strictures of society. Although both scenes open on a contemplative view of natural beauty, the camera gradually pulls back to reveal the back of Yun-ju’s head as he gazes through the window, separated from an unattainable nature by the frame of civilisation. As the camera pulls back further, his material surroundings begin to dominate the frame while nature recedes into an ever dwindling aperture. By contrast, although Hyun-nam’s future is less certain, the very last scene of the film as the credits roll shows her disappearing into the forest with her friend before turning, using a stolen rear view mirror (a memento of their shared act of rebellion) to reflect the light of the camera back on the audience.

Three years later, Bong Joon-So followed up his debut feature with Memories of Murder [Sarinui chueok] (2003), adapted from a 1996 stage play based on the Hwaseong serial murders (1986-1991), Korea’s first recorded serial killer case. Despite sparking the largest criminal investigation in South Korean history, these murders remained unsolved at the time the movie was made. (It was only as recently as 2019 that they were finally attributed to a man who had been jailed in 1994 for a separate rape & murder case.) Adapting an unsolved true crime story into a work of fiction requires the writer to take one of three approaches: inventing a fictional perpetrator (ultimately unsatisfying); making a case for a particular subject’s guilt (wildly irresponsible if the parties involved are still alive); or acknowledging the open-ended nature of the case. Although at least one of the investigating officers believes he has identified the killer by the end, the actual evidence remains inconclusive and the coda discards any remaining certainty.

This shifts the central focus of the film away from the killer to the investigation itself and the effect it has on the investigating officers. Local Detective Park Doo-man (Song Jang-ho) takes the investigative lead, an old school small town cop who values legwork and local knowledge over more modern approaches and believes he’s able to determine somebody’s guilt or innocence by looking them in the eye. He’s partnered with Cho Yong-koo (Kim Hoi-ra), a rash and unsophisticated policeman who’s prone to suddenly attacking people with flying drop kicks. The local police force are clearly unused to a case of this type, failing to secure the initial crime scene adequately and unable to prevent oblivious farmers from driving their tractors across key evidence. While Detective Park at first appears to be supremely competent in contrast to this farce, it’s not long before he and his partner have settled on the intellectually disabled Baek Kwang-ho (Park No-shik) as an easy fit for the culprit, going to work on him in the interrogation room in an attempt to bully and trick him into a confession. (This must have struck a chord with the director, as his later film Mother would centre around a similar incident.)

The investigation is soon joined by Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a talented young detective who has volunteered to transfer from Seoul to assist with the investigation. This budding partnership gets off to a terrible start when he tries to ask a nervous woman for directions to the police station, only to be mistaken for a rapist and assaulted by Park and Cho. He’s not with the investigation very long before he’s overturned all of their assumptions: he spots the obvious physical defects which would make it impossible for their suspect to have committed the crimes; he deduces the connections in common between the two victims and the circumstances of their assaults; and he identifies a missing person case as an undiscovered third victim. He’s also the only person to take Officer Kwon Kwi-ok (Go Seo-hee), the sole female on the force, seriously when she identifies another crucial clue.

The two lead investigators spend much of the film at odds, with Park unwilling to concede that Seo’s ideas have any validity, so determined to solve the case on his own that he ends up consulting a shaman to identify the culprit while criticising Seo’s methods as unscientific. Sobered into cooperation by another violent assault, their closer working relationship leads each of them to adopt some of the other’s traits, to both positive and negative effect.

Bong is careful in his depiction of the attacks on women, including two or three sequences of stalking but cutting away from the violence. He does include an impressionist montage of brief close-ups of the final victim to convey her experience of the attack, skilfully edited together by Kim Sun-min, but doesn’t show anything which is viscerally explicit. Any details about the attacks are saved for the autopsy room discussions, but Bong’s chosen shots treat the corpses of the victims with respect, focusing on the physical evidence which has been removed from their bodies rather than showing the bodies themselves – there’s even a moment when Detective Seo tugs up the waistband of a victim’s clothing to preserve a modicum of her dignity.

The contrast in audience response to Bong’s first two films couldn’t be more striking. Where Barking Dogs Never Bite disappeared into box office oblivion (despite receiving some positive critical response), Memories of Murder became South Korea’s most watched film of the year and was showered with awards, including three for Best Film, five for Best Director, four for Best Actor (Song Kang-ho), four for Best Screenplay, three for Best Cinematography and two for Best Editing. It firmly cemented his reputation both domestically and internationally, giving production companies the confidence to open up their coffers for his big budget follow-up The Host (although even then he was unable to afford the amount of CGI called for in his initial plans).

Memories of Murder is unquestionably an accomplished film, so I’ve been trying to determine why my own response to it is more muted than its level of acclaim would invite. I think it simply comes down to the order in which I’ve watched his films. Memories of Murder has a lot in common with his fourth film Mother, which blew me away when I finally saw it late last year. Although they’re very different creations in tone and substance, the similarities are so striking that it’s difficult not to compare them, and for me Mother is by far the more accomplished and engaging of the two films. I don’t intend to damn Memories of Murder with faint praise – “not quite as good as another very good film” is hardly a negative assessment – but I simply don’t have the emotional or critical distance to give it its due at this point in time.

When it came to assembling the cast for his follow-up, Bong drew upon a lot of the acting talent who had worked with him on these two early pieces. Four of the five members of the central family in The Host came from this pool of actors: Song Kang-ho (perhaps Korea’s most internationally recognisable actor) took the lead role once again; Byun Hee-bong (the dog-eating janitor from Barking Dogs Never Bite) played his father; Bae Doona (a lead in both Barking Dogs Never Bite and Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) returned to play his sister, the medal-winning archer; and Park Hae-il (one of the innocent suspects in Memories of Murder) played his political activist brother (with another 13 actors also returning to take on smaller roles).

Five down, two to go! I still need to catch up on his two films with Tilda Swinton, and perhaps (depending on how obsessive I feel) his contributions to four anthology films. (Or even the two music videos he made…) But I expect before then I’ll be darting off in some completely different directions.

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