How 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).
As 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).
But 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 …”
Why 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.
This 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.
In 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.
Chan’s 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).
There 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 might bow-and-arrow of hers again, in a clinch that allows no second chance …
I 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.
When 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.
In 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.
In 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).
In 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.
Where 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.
And 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 …
The 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.
But, 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.
Just 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 not lost.
© Adrian Martin February 2007 / August 2009