THE HOST: As in all of Bong’s films, the fun and games conceals dark realities — and vice versa.
You have to wonder whether there's something in the drinking water in Korea that's caused the country to spawn so many prolific, inventive new filmmakers — directors like Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst) and Bong Joon-ho. Maybe something like the toxic brew that's dumped into the Han River at the beginning of Bong's best-known film, THE HOST (2006), which will screen next Saturday (March 6 at 7 pm) as part of the Harvard Film Archive's Bong Joon-ho retrospective, whose first weekend the director will grace.
It's a potion that precipitates years later into a mutant monster that terrorizes Seoul. This beast is a collage of many other creatures, a chimera, yet somehow graceful, elegant, and full of fun. Sort of like the movie itself. Bong is a Dr. Frankenstein-like filmmaker, patching together odds and ends from various genres and auteurs and zapping the pastiche into a wondrous new creation, one that mutates from farce into satire, thrilling suspense, and finally tragedy, until the pieces coalesce, like a kaleidoscope, into a jolting symmetry.
As a master of genre conventions and expectations, Bong has a knack for putting you in a place that seems familiar and then taking off in directions that you couldn't have foreseen. His first feature, BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE (2000; March 6 at 9:30 pm), opens with a man on a cell phone talking about how beautiful the day is as he gazes out at what looks like a glowing bucolic paradise. Then the sound of a yapping dog and an adjustment in camera angle make it clear that he's standing on the balcony of a hideous monolith of an apartment complex, and that the green Elysium he seems on the brink of is forever out of reach.
The man is Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae), an aspiring academic, and the dog is just one of the things that's driving him crazy. His pregnant wife demands that he crack bags of walnuts for him, and as if that symbolic castration weren't enough, he has to watch less talented faculty members get tenure ahead of him by bribing the dean. Unlike the hapless hero of the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, though, he decides to do something about the situation (though his response isn't quite as extreme as that of Amy Bishop). At least, he figures, he can deal with the most immediate problem and silence the dog — an act that initiates a series of canine crimes. It also introduces Yun-ju to his shiftless potential soul mate, Hyeon-nam (Björk look-alike Bae Du-na), even as it immerses him in the sordid corruption and crass injustices of the apartment complex, a microcosm of society at large.