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Bong hits

By PETER KEOUGH  |  February 24, 2010

The crimes get more serious in Bong's next feature, MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003; March 1 at 7 pm, with the director present), which is based on a real spate of killings that took place in the backwaters of Gyeonggi Province in the '80s. The hapless investigators turn the crime scenes into a chaotic circus, destroying evidence and obliterating all the clues. Detective Park (Song Kang-ho) fancies himself an intuitive master sleuth (he watches the popular Korean TV show Investigation Squad) who has "shaman eyes." Those eyes notwithstanding, he mostly relies on the tried and true method (mirroring that of the government, as seen in glimpses of unrelated riot scenes) of beating the shit out of suspects. He's abetted by his sidekick Cho (Kim Roe-ha), whose sole interrogation tactic consists of, well, a side kick. Their procedures are basically the same as those seen in the Red Riding trilogy of British-TV films about a Yorkshire serial killer, though with a greater sense of humor.

As Park and Cho try to frame a mentally disabled local boy for the crimes, Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), a visiting city-slicker inspector from Seoul, intervenes and imposes hifalutin analytical methods on his reluctant partners. The result is a more refined level of abject failure. What they succeed in incriminating is the system — it comes off as a slapstick comedy of class conflict, ham-fisted folly, and numbing oppression of which they are only one part.

Bong plays with the traits and traditions of the family in the same way that he does the traits and traditions of film genres. Besides being a highly effective and richly entertaining horror movie, The Host compares and contrasts the effectiveness of the smallest social unit with that of the largest — i.e., the woefully dysfunctional Park family versus the combined forces of the Korean government, the United States Defense Department, and the World Health Organization. When the rampaging creature scarfs down the youngest Park, 11-year-old Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), the rest of the family — her mentally deficient (continuing an apparent Bong preoccupation) dad, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho from Memories of Murder), her near-champion archery-ace aunt, Nam-Joo (Bae Du-na from Barking Dogs), her alcoholic college-grad uncle, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), and the long-suffering paterfamilias, Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong) — refuse to believe she's dead and vow to hunt down the creature and rescue the girl themselves. The authorities, meanwhile, try to ignore the obvious problem of the at-large omnivorous freak and instead cook up, WMD-style, a bogus virus scare that they use as an excuse to establish martial law, corral the "infected" into detention centers, and conduct unsavory experiments. As in all of Bong's films, the fun and games, such as the tour de force opening onslaught of the monster, conceals dark realities — and vice versa.

Despite their fecklessness, the Park clan's loyalty and courage will win your respect for family values — and the sentiment should carry over to Bong's most recent film, MOTHER (2009; February 28 at 7 pm, with the director present). It opens with one of Bong's signature motifs: an extreme long shot of a tiny figure crossing a stark landscape or a panorama of dehumanizing architecture. Here, it's the title matriarch (Kim Hye-ja) wandering through a weatherbeaten field toward the camera. What she does then is totally unexpected but utterly apt. More unexpected is what happens when the shot is reprised toward the end of the film.

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