REVIEW: Mother (2010)

28 06 2017

I’ll give director Bong Joon Ho credit for avoiding a lot of maternal tropes in his mysterious thriller “Mother,” specifically any bludgeoning Oedipal allusions. In the film, an unnamed widow (who we first meet as she dances alone, oddly and blithely, in a field of wheat) cares deeply for her stunted son Do-joon. So deeply, in fact, that she takes it upon herself to play detective and investigator when he is arrested for murder.

Their sleepy South Korean town is not accustomed to any sort of crime, so a body turning up in public view threatens to turn over a lot of stones to which authorities had cast a blind eye. One such item is the unlicensed acupuncture practice run by the mother. Yet for all the risks the situation poses, she is more than willing to exploit the turmoil so she can find a way to exonerate her son … or destroy the evidence.

“Mother” works a lot better in its first act, an exciting chain of events with more of Bong’s dark humor. (A moment of replicating the crime scene with a doll, only to have the head fall off in front of a crowd, had me in stitches.) After the mother doubles down and dedicates herself to deliver a personal version of justice, it gets a little too grim and somber. As a director, he makes more interesting when he embraces the quirks rather than suppressing them. Solid genre effort though this might be, it’s missing a little bit of spark as it comes to a close. B /

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REVIEW: Okja

27 06 2017

Director Bong Joon Ho took oblique shots at social malaise through allegory in his films “The Host” and “Snowpiercer,” but he goes in for a more direct kill shot with his latest, “Okja.” The film is a blistering sendup of multinational corporations’ hunt for profit and the ridiculous measures they take to appear responsible while pursuing policies that cause harm.

The story is a bit disjointed, but that seems to be by design. After a brief prologue introduces the Mirando Corporation’s bio-engineered “superpig” program to the world, Bong cuts to ten years later where a well-adjusted creature, Okja, lives happily with her owner Mija (An Seo Hyun). The idea, perfectly engineered by company public relations, is to lease out these new creatures to farmers across the world who can raise them humanely. Then, the bells and whistles of sleekly-produced, insidious infomercials featuring Jake Gyllenhaal’s reality TV star  Johnny Wilcox – essentially Steve Irwin on smack – will convince the public that the meet made from these animals is safe for consumption. And delicious, to boot!

The farm-to-slaughterhouse pipeline gets disrupted when an animal rights group intervenes to save Okja. They call themselves the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and establish their non-militancy before their ideals, a hilarious sendup of politically correct protest culture. These young idealists involve Okja and Mija in their plan to inflict economic damage on the Mirando Corporation and its CEO Lucy Mirando, played by Tilda Swinton as a woman who talks like she’s forcing every word with the energy of someone trying not to drown.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 18, 2017)

18 05 2017

Recently, I waxed existential on Nacho Vigalondo’s “Colossal” in regards to what the monster represented thematically. To avoid reruns, I’ll spare the long introduction to symbolic genre interpretation and simply say my take on Bong Joon Ho’s “The Host” utilizes a similar analytical framework – but from a different angle. Sometimes it’s not just the monster we should be looking at. The victims are also worth further inspection.

When the strange Korean river monster emerges from under the bridge in “The Host,” the creature snarls a certain type of person. The girl distracted on her phone. The family too busy watching TV to notice something out of the ordinary. If you choose to interpret obesity as a product of personal laziness rather than genetic predisposition, maybe you could lump the guy in a jersey two sizes too small for him in with this group. The monster is pretty clearly targeting people who are impeding contemporary society with their habits.

That’s far from the extent of Bong’s commentary on the time, part of the reason “The Host” is my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” (as a reminder, that’s a contrived acronym for First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie). He crafts a great action movie that’s thrilling to watch from an entertainment perspective. As a rip-roaring adventure for Gang-du to recover his daughter Hyun-seo from the sewer prison of the monster, it’s a blast.

But if you come for the genre fare, stick around for the ribbing political satire. At every step of the way on their rescue of Hyun-seo, some arcane bureaucratic procedure or cruel governmental intervention holds them up. (From a current perspective, it looks like a sharpening of the knives for “Snowpiercer” just a few years later.) There’s comedy, malevolence, malfeasance and terror lurking in just about every scene – often times all at once, a pretty remarkable feat for any director to execute.





REVIEW: Snowpiercer

3 07 2014

SnowpiercerDirector Bong Joon Ho, like many cinephiles, is a big fan of Tilda Swinton.  And at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, he tracked her down and professed his admiration at a brunch.  Afterwards, they mutually decided they would work together on something in the future.

Joon Ho was in the process of writing “Snowpiercer,” and he feared there would not be a part for Swinton in the script.  But then he had a stroke of genius: he would cast Swinton, no stranger to playing some rather gonzo roles, as the authoritative Minister Mason.  This part, however, was initially written for a man.

Swinton gets made-down quite amusingly by the hair and makeup department, pairing her with a drab wig and some nasty dentures.  She’s not her usually chic self, but Swinton isn’t identifiably masculine, either.  Joon Ho doesn’t change any of the personal pronouns in the script, so Mason is still referred to as a he.

Swinton’s performance, then, is not one that doesn’t choose a gender but seems to transcend our understanding of the binary altogether.  As a whole, “Snowpiercer” relishes in this spirit of breaking boundaries.  It can’t necessarily be tied down to one genre, constantly surprising us with each turn.

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