many film fans around the world know who Bae Doo-na is? With her large nose that would never be allowed past
the cosmeticians in Hollywood, her crazy eyes, and her general physique which
seems permanently stalled somewhere between gawky adolescence and an alluringly
troubled adulthood, Bae is a cult star in her home
country of Korea, and beloved throughout various parts of Asia – she has even
played an inflatable sex-toy in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Air Doll (2009).
a screen presence, Bae effortlessly projects a potent
mix of emotional states: childlike innocence, kooky comedy, punk defiance,
postmodern melancholia. She lets rip as a singer in the 2005 Japanese teen
movie Linda, Linda, Linda (great
title, that), and she skulks around a surreal Korean metropolis populated by
humans who are rather too fond of their pets in Barking
Dogs Never Bite (2000). She has appeared in ultra-violent
films (such as Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, 2002) and sweet, sentimental romances
(such as Do You Like Spring Bear,
2003), as well as unclassifiable pieces of whimsy like Take Care of My Cat (2001).
she also projects a tough side, a recalcitrance about
playing the movie star game; three years have elapsed between two of her films.
In a fascinating documentary on the role and contribution of women in Korean
cinema (scholar Kim Soyoung’s I’ll Be Seeing Her, 2003), she slouches
against a wall, super-cool, and drawls: “In my next film, I would like to kiss
a woman …”
isn't she a star in the West, beyond being idolised by those hothouse groups of
aficionados who adore all things Eastern? It’s a good question. Many
Australians, for example, like to consider themselves au fait with Asian culture – I once heard an academic
straight-facedly declare in public that she had a special understanding of
Japan, having grown up watching Kimba The White Lion and The
Samurai on TV – but this good-neighbour policy hides a more brutal reality
of general indifference.
is certainly the case at the cinema. Despite an occasional hit touted as the
epochal breakthrough crossover, such as Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) or the historical spectaculars of Zhang Yimou (Hero,
2002), Asian films have a hard time finding a berth in Western movie chains,
whether commercial or arthouse. The resistance to
their otherness is still intense.
this, of course, as in so many things, the West merely follows the USA. A 2007
poll on the Internet, dripping with American bias, ranked Jackie Chan as the
41st most popular movie star in the world. Needless to say, this poll was
heavily weighted towards the West. A Chan retrospective, held at the Queensland
Art Gallery’s new Gallery of Modern Art during February 2007, reminded fans of
the greatness of his Hong Kong work from Drunken
Master in 1978 to New Police Story in 2004 – and brought home how dissatisfying, by comparison, even large
commercial successes like the Rush Hour films are.
attempt to conquer the American market, it seems, can never happen on his own
terms: he will always be cast alongside some American “local” (white or black)
who inevitably dilutes his humour and cramps his style. Where is the childlike
comedy, the surreal flights of fancy, the breathtaking physical work of Chan’s
Hong Kong masterpieces? In the meantime, Hollywood has, in recent years,
discovered a way to hand itself the prize even for Best Foreign Film: director
Clint Eastwood and producer Steven Spielberg have become, it seems, honorary
Japanese filmmakers because of the one-off of Letters from Iwo Jima (2006).
is a link between Bae Doo-na and Jackie Chan. In Drunken Master,
Chan and his collaborators perfected the storyline for an action-comedy. No
matter how many exacting skills the hero picks up along the way, or much
bone-breaking training he endures, the climax demands a special ingredient:
some extra bit of magic or soul, some splendid moment of inspired
improvisation, some overcoming of inner doubt or fear that will come into play when
the final life-or-death battle arrives.
In The Host, Bae plays Nam-joo, a bronze medallist in archery whose
nerve sometimes falters when it comes to firing the final, decisive arrow. Soon
after the public humiliation of her failure to win the gold medal, she and her
family are swept into a strange adventure: it will be up to these ordinary
citizens to fight, tooth and nail, an extremely powerful and monstrous creature
that has emerged from the Han River. Eventually, Nam-joo will have to take up that mighty bow-and-arrow of hers again, in a clinch that
allows no second chance …
am gazing, rather pained, at the advertisement for The Host that I snipped out of my local Melbourne newspaper in
early 2007. It is a tiny box inside the display for an inner-city arthouse cinema. The film’s brilliant director, Bong Joon-ho (the twisted mind behind Barking
Dogs Never Bite), is listed as a special Q & A guest at
the premiere; but there is no image of Bae Doo-na with her mighty weapon.
I first spotted this, I feared for the commercial fate of this movie, which
happens to be one of the greatest of recent times. It is a rousing action
adventure, a chilling sci-fi parable, a truly frightening horror movie, and an
inspired comedy: and that’s maybe already too many genres in one for a Western
audience, although such a potpourri is par for the course in the Asian
mainstream. It was also, in Korea and elsewhere, a blockbuster, an enormous
popular success – although you may not be able to guess that from the demeaning
size of the overly cautious Aussie ad.
a just world, The Host would have
been every bit the box-office event that Crouching
Tiger was – and would instantly be perceived, at large, as vastly superior
to the usual run of lacklustre Denzel Washington or Harrison Ford
action-thrillers. The film has a visceral kick, and an exhilarating high, to
match the memory of what it was to see Jaws (1975) on a big screen during its first release. Except that Bong is a much
more interesting and intricate director than Spielberg will ever be; and his
collaboration with Bae adds a dimension that no
American blockbuster can even approach.
a few, short years, Bong has mastered a uniquely kinky approach to genre
cinema: taking the template of some formula (whether family soap opera, police
thriller or sci-fi horror) and then leaping, in the blink of a cut, between
starkly contrasting light and dark moods. Since The Host, he has directed a segment of the anthology film Tokyo! (2008), and worked on two
features, Mother (2009) – a thriller
of sorts, like his Memories of Murder (2003) – and a futuristic action film, which eventually became the stirring Snowpiercer (2013).
Korea – and for some Korean commentators placed disaporically around the globe – The Host is taken as
an ambivalent kind of cultural object. It aims at exactly the target that
Jackie Chan has coveted for so long: a takeover of Western cinema, an imperious
appropriation of its entertainment codes. With one major difference: where Chan
can be a little obsequious in his love for the classics of Hollywood, Bong
swings in with a critique of America that makes non-American audiences want to
raise the rafters with applause.
Chan uses a Crocodile Dundee-type plot as a vehicle to negotiate his hopeful passage into
the American market – casting himself as the fish-out-of-water who comes to
save the day in a nasty American city, humanising it in the process, as in Rumble in the Bronx (1995) – Bong begins his story baldly: this monstrous ‘host’
springs to life because a scary-looking American in a lab coat orders the
dumping of many bottles of toxic chemicals down the sink.
that is only the beginning of the anti-American allegory: then there are the
official cover-ups we glean from the TV broadcasts chattering in the background
of scenes, the media-fed panic about an imaginary virus that serves a sudden
declared ‘state of exception’, and the brutal military intervention wheeled in
by US troops during the finale …
most frightening scenes in The Host have more than a touch of David Cronenberg: poor
Gong-du (Song Kang-ho), who’s seen too much of the truth, strapped down and
gagged in a sinister, makeshift hospital, primed for lobotomy. But, for all its
political-big-picture savvy – and its evident love of B-grade, trash cinema –
this is a film that, front and centre, is about a family. And a rather ordinary
family, at that: the undertow of melancholy in Bong’s vision comes from the
fact that his stories are populated by broken families, orphans, loners, under-achievers,
depressives. Not that he makes a big deal about that on the social issue level;
this is simply the mundane, basic reality of the world, and it provides him
with as much humour as it does poignancy.
when it comes time for the melodramatic action offered on the heightened plane
of the sci-fi monster plot, Bong naturally opts for the model of captivity
narrative familiar from US Westerns: far better than in Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds remake, everything
depends on snatching back little Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), Gong-du’s daughter,
from the clutches of the creature.
as naturally, Bong will pervert this structure, twist
it in a number of surprising, exciting ways. But he always comes back to a
family unit of some kind, however weirdly constituted, and one that ultimately
resembles that famous American television family The Simpsons: the world may be going to hell courtesy of US foreign
policy, but as long as there’s some junk food lying around in the ruins, all is
© Adrian Martin February 2007 / August 2009