Joon-Ho Bong

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )

, /10

Joon-Ho Bong (Korea, 1969) directed the farcical Flandersui Gae/ Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) and the thriller Sarinui Chueok/ Memories of Murder (2003). The latter is ostensibly about finding a serial killer but mostly focuses on the contrast between the rural detective, a comic but very humane character and the city detective, a cold and calculating machine. In fact, we never find out who the killer was. There is a philosophical story behind the comedy and the tragedy: they never get any clue on the killer's identity, and even years later, when the detective, returns to the crime of the scene, a girl can't tell him anything about the mysterious man seen in the same place. There is no way to find out the truth. A detective is taken (by tractor) to a rural area where a woman has been raped, killed and buried into a big pipe. There are only children and peasants around. The police force seems totally incompetent, including the detective, who claims to be able to identify a guilty man just by looking intensely at him. He is no inept that he mistakes a city detective (sent to help with the case) for a rapist chasing a girl, when in fact the city detective was simply trying to ask her a question. His wife tells him that people are gossiping about the retarded child of a family, who was seen chasing the woman. The kid confesses and shoeprints prove that he was on the scene of the crime. It looks like the case is solved. But the city detective easily proves that the kid can't possibly have strangled the victim, given that his hands don't open properly. This is the second case of a rape and murder. The city detective thinks there is a third one, a girl who has been missing. The city detective even figured out where her body might be, and in fact a search finds it. He also noticed that all three girls were attacked on rainy days. And the technique was the same. The city detective does not miss opportunities to show contempt for the amateurish town cops, even when they invite him to a karaoke bar. Another woman gets raped and killed on a rainy day, and the detectives find no evidence. The town detective comes up with the idea that the killer must have no pubic hair, because none has been found at the scenes of the murders. By studying the records of a radio station, a female police officer finds out that on the days of the murders someone has requested the same song. The town detective visits a sauna to check on men without pubic hair. His wife even suggests that he sees a clarvoyant. Independently, the two rival detectives converge onto the same suspect and arrest him while he is masturbating in the woods in front of women's lingerie. And this time the city detective is amazed that the town detective's instinct worked. The city detective investigates a gossip at the high school about a maniac squatting in the outhouse, and then the story of a woman who was seen crying. This one, a scared woman who lives in an insolated house, turns out to be a woman who escaped the killer. She describes the killer and the city detective realizes that he can't be the pervert who is being tortured by the town detective. The two detectives get into a fist fight because the town detective can't stand the haughty attitude of the city detective, who keeps proving him an idiot. Their fight is interrupted by the police cop: the radio station is playing the song, and it is raining outside. They issue the alarm but it is too late: a woman has been killed. This time the radio station has saved the postcard of the person who requested the song, and that person conveniently wrote his (the sender's) address and name. Hyun-Kyu is a worker who was hired at the local factory just before the first murder occurred. They arrest him but can't properly interrogate him because one of the cops beat him up. Chatting with the town detective, the city detective realizes that the retarded boy's confession was real in the sense that the kid really told all the details about the murder of the girl. This means that the kid must have witnessed the crime. The detectives try to find the retarded kid but the same violent cop causes a scuffle in his parents' restaurant. The kid comes to the rescue of his folks and sticks a rusty nail into the violent cop's leg. The kid this time admits that he saw the killer. The detectives want him to identify Hyun-Kyu in aphotograph but the kid gets scared, runs away and is run over by a train. There goes their only witness. Hyun-Kyu is released from jail pending a DNA test that is being performed in the USA, the violent cop has his leg amputated because the rusty nail caused an infection. The city detective is keeping an eye on Hyun-Kyu but one evening his car breaks down. That very night someone kidnaps a schoolgirl in the woods nearby, and we see her terrified face as the killer prepares to rape her, while the city detective looks in vain for his suspect. That night it is not raining, but it rains when they find the body: the killer has inserted a pen and a spoon in her vagina. This time the city detective snaps and he personally tortures Hyun-Kyu, but the town detective stops him: the DNA tests are in and they exonerate Hyun-Kyu. The city detective still believes in Hyun-Kyu's guilt and tries to kill him, but the town detective stops him and lets the suspect walk away (into a railway tunnel).
Years later, the former town detective is married with two children and works as a salesman (his wife is the female cop). He stops by the first crime scene and takes a walk. A passing girl is puzzled because another man was looking at the same place not long before. He would like to find out who this man was (the city detective or the killer?) but the girl can't provide any useful information... again no evidence.

The blockbuster Gwoemul/ The Host (2006) stands as a compendium of genres that extends beyond monster movies (Ishiro Honda's Gojira/ Godzilla, Steven Spielberg's Jaws, Ridley Scott's Alien, John Carpenter's The Thing) and beyond the science-fiction films of the 1950s and 1960s centered on nuclear mutatations (Gordon Douglas' Them, Jack Arnold's Tarantula, Bert Gordon's Beginning of the End, etc) to Frank Capra's family comedy and political satire (You Can't Take It with You), to Steven Spielberg's adventure films (Jurassic Park) and to mangas (the little resolute heroine drenched in grime).
Mainly, Bong's gang of amateur dragon slayers constitutes an ode to the family, no matter how dysfunctional it has become in the post-war era. Abandoned by authorities who are incompetent, mischievious and corrupt, they are left to fend for themselves. They are not vengeful, they just want their ordinary boring life back. To succeed, they have to fight (directly or indirectly) a monster, the police, a mad scientist, their own government, and the world's superpower (whose top-secret schemes are never fully revealed but always in the background). In fact, one wonders who is the real monster: the creature that captures the little girl or the society that has created it and now indirectly protects it. It might or might not be a coincidence that the old man is hard-working, wise and courageous, and the women (both the aunt and the little protagonist) are smart and resolute, whereas the young men are dumb, useless and unemployed. It does sound like an attack against the males of the Bong's generation.
The scoundrels are just about everybody else who does not constitute a family: the very government that is supposed to provide assistance and instead only provides inhuman regulations, the media (that are ridiculed no less than the authorities), the crowd (in which family values dissipate and wither), and the distant world of international politics (at the end the official report is deemed so irrelevant that we never get to hear it).
The film also has nationalistic overtones, touching repeatedly on widespread "anti-American" sentiment in Asia: the incident that sets the film in motion did indeed occur in 2000 when a US team dumped 120 liters of formaldehyde into a morgue's sink, which eventually led to contamination of a river; the mad scientist who proceeds with lobotomy even knowing that the virus does not exist represents the nonsense of US foreign policy, driven by obscure motives and indifferent to "collateral damage"; we don't hear the final conclusion of the report prepared by the senate of the USA, and that too is a not so veiled comment (it cannot be trusted anyway, so it is not worth our time to even listen to it). At the same time an off-duty soldier is the first hero of the film (the first one who doesn't just scream and flee) and the secret chemical that demonstrators oppose does actually work against the monster without apparently hurting the family.

In a morgue a Western scientist orders his younger Korean assistant to dump toxic chemicals in the sink, indifferent to the fact that the chemicals will end up in the river. One day six years later two fishermen spot a fish with multiple tails. A scientist commits suicide from a bridge, calling morons those who try to save him. Hee-Bong is an old man who proudly runs a food stand by the river, selling snacks to the people who enjoy a picnic in the nearby park. His son Gang-du is retarded and doesn't quite help. Gang-du comes alive only when his little daughter Hyun-seo comes back from school. He plays games and watches television with her. He has been saving coins like a child to buy her a new mobile phone because she is ashamed that she has such an ugly and old one. When they turn on the tv set, they first see the news of the man's suicide, but they are eager to watch an archery competition in which Gang-du's sister Nam-joo is competing. However, granpa sends Gang-du to deliver food urgently to some customers who complained, and then granpa joins the girl in front of the tv set. Gang-du and others see a creature diving into the river. Initially, they are captivated but then the monster jumps on land and wreaks havoc among the bystanders. Only a foreign off-duty soldier tries to confront the monster, and Gang-du is the only one to join him. Meanwhile, Nam-joo loses the semifinal and Hyun-seo walks out of the house just when the monster is running past it. She is grabbed by the monster and taken into the river while her father watches powerless. The authorities don't leave him time to mourn his daughter: he is told to immediately evacuate the area. They are transported to a compound where a memorial for all the dead has been set up. Dozens of relatives are crying in front of pictures of their beloved ones. That includes Gang-du, his sister the archer Nam-joo (who lays her bronze medal in front of her niece's picture), their chronically drunk brother Nam-il (unemployed like the others but well-educated, except that he spent his youth in student protests), and their father Hee-Bong. The whole family rolls on the floor, heavily photographer by paparazzis. Later the old man explains that Gang-du is retarded because Hyun-seo's mother ran away after giving birth, an unwanted pregnancy. Scientists in the USA have discovered that the creature is the product of a virus and the local government has decided to quarantine all the people who came in close contact with the beast. Gang-du admits having monster's blood all over his face when the soldier attacked it, and men wrapped in yellow protective suits immediately grabbed him and take him to a special hospital. The entire family follows him. Television shows that the soldier has developed a horrible infection that causes a rash and high fever. It could be highly contagious. Gang-du is scheduled to be visited the following day but overnight he receives a call from... Hyun-seo! She is alive, kept in the dragon's lair that she describes as a giant sewer. That is the place where the monster drops the ones it captures. The authorities refuse to help, not believing that a dead girl can make phone calls. In fact, they diagnose schizophrenia on Gang-du. The family manages to escape in a slapstick sort of style from the hospital. Granpa buys a fumigation truck and a gun from some thugs with all of his savings. Now the only money they have is the coins that Gang-du saved for his daughter's new cell phone. And that's precisely the money they need later to bribe the official at a police checkpoint. The family reaches the sewers and start roaming around searching for the girl.
The family takes shelter at their snack stand. When the monster attacks their stand, they are prepared: they shoot and the monster runs away and they chase it along the river. Alas, they run out of bullets. The family runs back to the truck while the old man faces the monster alone and is quickly killed. To make things worse, Gang-du is captured by the police. They are now wanted all over town. Television shows that the scientist of the USA who has provided the virus theory has died mysteriously. Nam-il and Nam-joo split. Nam-il calls an old college buddy, who was part of the same political protests in their college days and is now a manager in a telecom company. The friend can help locate from where the girl made the cell phone call. The computer gets Nam-il the information (that he texts to his sister) but his friend has betrayed him: the office is surrounded by cops (the friend, the old socialist protester, has done it to collect the reward money). However, Nam-il is used to guerrilla methods and manages to escape. Nam-joo is busy tracking down the monster but her bow does little to help her. She texts the location to Gang-du, who is being sedated at the hospital. A sadistic US doctor interviews him. Gang-du tells them that he knows where his daughter is, but in vain: they are only interested in operating him. The doctor officially diagnoses that the deadly virus has infected Gang-du's brain, but then Gang-du overhears him saying that no virus has been found on any of the victims of the beast. It is a top secret thought. The sadistic doctor still proceeds with the brain lobotomy (for a virus that doesn't exist) and with no anesthesia (and keeping a father from rushing to his daughter's help).
Meanwhile, Hyun-seo has met a boy in the monster's lair, Se-joo. They are both filthy and hungry, but alive. They use clothes from dead people to make a very long rope with which they hope to climb out of their trap. But just then the monster comes back and vomits skeletons, lots of them. She tries bravely to escape but is swallowed by the monster.
Her uncle finds a bum under a bridge who helps him prepare molotov bottles, a skill that Nam-il learned at the time of the student protests. Then they take a taxi to the sewer's location. Gang-du gets to the right place in the sewers but finds nobody, just the skeletons. His sister the archer is also there, and they finally meet again. They realize that the monster is holding Hyun-seo in its mouth. Nam-il and the bum arrive in the taxi armed with molotov bombs. Meanwhile, protesters are staging a demonstration against the USA (that wants to test a new poison gas on the monster) and against their government (to free Gang-du, now a celebrity). As the police prepares to charge the demonstrators and a loudspeaker repeats silly announcements, the monster attacks from behind. The police release the new poison gas which in fact stops the monster. Gang-du hits a police officer before he can shoot (lest the shot kills Hyun-seo), opens the mouth of the monster, and pulls his daughter out. She is still hugging the little boy, and they are both breathing. Uncle and aunt join Gang-du in finishing the monster: Nam-il's molotovs, a flaming arrow shot by the archer, and Gang-du's improvised spear deal the fatal blows. Gang-du goes back to his father's snack stand and adopts the little boy. They turn on the television set but get bored because the station is broadcasting live from the USA the findings of an investigations into the case. They turn it off and we will never know what those findings are.

Madeo/ Mother (2009) is an odd beast, half detective film with comic overtones that at times sounds like a sendup of the sleuth genre and half a Tarantino-era version of Hitchcock's and DePalma's most morbid psychological thrillers. The film contains a terrifying allegory on justice: first a mentally handicapped boy is accused of a crime because it's the easiest way to close the case, and then he is released simply because an even more deranged boy provides an even better way to close the case.

An old woman, who runs a tiny apothecary in a small provincial town, is keeping an eye on her son, Do-jun, who is playing with a dog in the street. Suddenly, a car drives by at high speed and almost kills the boy. His best friend Jin-tae drags Do-jun into a taxi and they chase the hit-and-run bastards. The only injury, actually, has occurred to the mother, who was chopping herbs and, startled, chopped a bit of flesh off her finger. Do-jun is mentally retarded and his friend makes fun of his idiocy. They catch up with them at the golf course. First Jin-tae smashes the car's rear mirror and then the two kids attack the group of golfers. It turns out that the golfers are important "professors" who call the police. The police officer tries to mediate for a settlement. When one of the professors calls Do-jun "retard", the boy snaps and almost starts a fight in front in the police station. Finally, his mother arrives to pick him up and take him home. Unfortunately, someone has to pay for the broken mirror, and Jin-tae makes everybody believe (even Do-jun himself) that it was Do-jun's doing. Now his mother needs to find the money to pay for the mirror.
Do-jun spends the evening in a night-club and gets drunk. He's in love with the pretty Mina. When but the club's owner kicks him out unceremoniously, Do-jun follows Mina in the narrow alleys of the town but then he loses her. The following day Mina is found murdered. The police are puzzled: it's the first murder in a long time. Two detectives go to talk with Do-jun and then push him in the car. They have to speed up because his mom starts screaming and running after them, and they end up crashing against another car. Anyway, they make it to the police station where Du-jun is interrogated and signs a confession. A golf ball was found next to the dead girl, and Du-jun is known to collect golf balls. However, later he tells his mother that he didn't do it. His mother begs in vain the detective, her old high-school friend Je-mun: the case is closed. Do-jun is an easy scapegoat for the police. A huge crowd assembles to watch when the police make Do-jun reenact the murder. And Do-jun enjoys all the attention.
At the funeral of the girl the mother screams that Do-jun didn't do it and is almost lynched by the friends and relatives, rescued by the girl's mad granma. His mom hires a famous lawyer and begs Do-jun to remember: Do-jun makes an effort and at least he now remembers that it was Jin-tae who broke the mirror. Do-jun's mom begins to suspect Jin-tae. She breaks into his house and finds traces of blood on a golf club. She hides in a closet when Jin-tae arrives with girl, watches them make love, and sneaks out when they fall asleep. She then runs to the police station, hoping to have solved the case, but it turns out the "blood" is just lipstick.
She meets the famous attorney in a karaoke club, drunk and surrounded by gorgeous prostitutes: he tells her that the best that Do-jun can hope for is four years in a mental hospital.
Jin-tae asks her for compensation but also offers some help. He does a better analysis than the police: the motive of Mina's murder is mysterious because the killer hoisted her dead body up to the roof, not buried it, and her house being on top of the hill that meant that the whole town could see it. The killer wanted the whole town to see it.
Meanwhile, Do-jun suddenly remember something that happened when he was five: his mother tried to kill him. Back then she got so desperate that she actually wanted to kill both herself and him. But he only knows that she wanted to kill him and doesn't want to see her anymore. He is all that she has, all that she lives for. She now regrets that she didn't use a stronger poison, which would have spared them all this trouble.
Nonetheless, she keeps investigating. She senses that the dead girl's cell phone might hold a clue and gets in touch with Mina's best friend. She sees two kids beat her up in a narrow alley to find out where the cell phone is and saves her by making noise.
She pays Jin-tae to help her interrogate the two kids. They find them in an amusement park, high on drugs. They tell Jin-tae that she was nicknamed "Rice Cake Fuck" because she would have sex in exchange not for money but for rice. Jin-tae locks them in cabins of the ferris wheel and then proceeds to make them talk. He's a better cop than the real cops. They reveal that Mina took pictures of all the guys she slept with, dozens of them. They laugh that the only one who never slept with her, Do-jun, got blamed for the murder. She rushes to granma's place, who still does not believe that the girl is dead, and convinces her to give her Mina's phone. At the same time in the middle of the night Do-jun screams that he remembers: he remembers seeing an old man while he was following Mina in the alley. His mom makes the connection: there is only one picture of an old man in the cell phone. She tracks him down in his cramped shanty and he tells her his version of the facts. He saw Mina walk by and then Do-jun follow her. Mina called him "retard" and Do-jun threw a big stone at her. Realizing he had killed her, Do-jun had dragged her body up the stairs to the roof. The old man is a dangerous witness, in fact the only witness. Do-jun's mom is suddenly aware that nothing will save her son if this old tramp talks to the police. She grabs a piece of wood and his him furiously on the head until he dies. Then she sets fire to the shanty.
She wanders in the fields of wheat. When she finally returns home, resuming her job chopping herbs like at the beginning, the detective is waiting for her with good news: they caught a mentally handicapped boy (more handicapped than Do-jun) who escaped from a mental asylum and found Mina's blood on his clothes. The boy's defense is that Mina had nosebleed while they were having sex. The police do not believe him. Do-jun's mom knows that this can be true because during her investigation she found out that Mina had frequent nosebleeds, and she also knows that Mina slept with just about everybody.
What happened is that the police found a better scapegoat than Do-jun, and Do-jun will go free for the same reason that he had been arrested in the first place: an easy way to close a case. His mother knows this and cries when she meets the boy.
Do-jun is released. Back at home he tells his mom his "theory" of why the killer hoised Mina's body to the roof, a theory that noone else could have come up with: she was hurt and needed to be taken to the hospital, so the killer placed her body where people could see her quickly.
Do-jun, in turn, finds something that belongs to her mother (her acupunture tools) in the ruins of the shanty that she burned down: so he knows that she was the one who set the place on fire. She leaves on a tour bus for a vacation.
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )