This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 8 is called "Horrors Crossing Borders Week":
Sometimes, the most horrifying things are those in the unknown. With the added disorientation from a different than usual location and/or language, foreign horror allows us to not only see what other countries and cultures might find horrifying, but to break free of the traditions of our own country's horror spectacles. And, ya know, Halloween.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen horror film from a country other than the one you originate from/live currently.
Not the finest hour for the Challenge. I figured I was safe ... Korean horror, 88 minutes. Comments suggested a blend of Battle Royale, which I liked, and Saw, which I have avoided and thus don't know the connection. Battle Royale was a violent, over-the-top Hunger Games, and not surprisingly was kinda silly. It was good. Death Bell is violent and over-the-top and silly, but it's not good. The basic setup is intriguing: elite students at a Japanese school must correctly answer quiz questions, with one of them dying for each wrong answer. But there is little suspense, the various students aren't individualized enough to care about them, and the "solution" to the crime is anti-climactic. Not the worst film I've watched in the Challenge, but close. Of course, there is a sequel. Bonus points for a novel use of a washing machine.
It was my turn to pick a movie for Geezer Cinema, and it wasn't hard to choose ... I've been looking forward to Parasite for a long time. This is because I've become interested in recent Korean films, and Director Bong is probably my favorite, having seen five of his movies prior to Parasite and liking them all: Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, Snowpiercer, and Okja. Parasite isn't like the others, but that itself is a bit of a Bong tradition, as is my response. When I look back at earlier reviews, I see I repeat myself time and again. As I wrote about Okja,
Even as his films test different genres, there is a consistency to the quality of his work.... If there's a problem with this consistency, it's that I am running out of things to say. But I was also prescient ... there is no telling what he'll do next ... Snowpiercer was a futuristic sci-fi dystopia; The Host was a monster movie; Memories was a procedural. And now Okja, an anti-corporation tale where the title character is a genetically-modified "super pig" and the main human character is a young Korean girl (played by Ahn Seo-hyun).
I'm not sure I can even reduce Parasite to a specific genre, which may be a sign that I liked it even more than the others. I'll avoid a spoiler here, but I'll nonetheless note that the film's title describes the movie, if you account for the twists that take Parasite into areas you didn't expect. It is a study in class, which is a common theme in Bong's films, perhaps most clearly in Snowpiercer. It features Song Kang-Ho, who has been in four of the Bong films I've seen. Parasite starts off as one kind of movie, almost a comedy, gradually and almost unnoticed takes a turn into another kind of movie, reflects on the notion of parasites, and somehow at the end you realize it was never just one kind of movie, but always all kinds of movies. It is constantly surprising, and Bong pulls off an interesting trick: you realize something is about to happen just before it happens, but not long before ... you don't think that birthday cake is going to be important until the moment when it becomes important.
And I haven't mentioned the house that is the center of much of the action. Here is an article (with spoilers) examining the work of Bong and production designer Lee Ha Jun creating "the year's best set".
I've been spending a little time at the Letterboxd website ... this is what happens when you're retired, I guess. A couple of fellows from Germany uploaded a list of their top three films of each year, and I got inspired enough to create my own list. It starts in 1924 and goes through 2018. Two years (1926 and 1929) only got two movies, so the entire list is comprised of 283 movies. The thing that interested me the most was the recent films, because when I make Top 50 lists or whatever, I always end up with lots of old movies and not enough new ones. By forcing myself to pick three from each year, I was able to give recent years some space. So, to take a couple of years at random, from 2018, Black Panther, Roma, and Springsteen on Broadway made the list, while 2005 offered A History of Violence, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Top three from 1924? Sherlock, Jr., Greed, and The Navigator (lots of Buster Keaton in the silent years).
Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong, 2013). When I first saw this in 2015, I was still at the beginning of my fascination with recent Korean film. I've often wanted to share those films with my wife, but at least when we are at home, we're limited by subtitles (she doesn't object to subtitles, but she is usually knitting as we watch, so being able to understand dialogue without looking at the screen matters). Snowpiercer is said to be 80% English (who did the accounting on this factoid?), and beyond that, it's the kind of movie I think my wife would like: futuristic sci-fi action with a recognizable cast led by Chris "Captain America" Evans. As I noted at the time, you wouldn't go to Snowpiercer for an introduction to modern Korean cinema ... it’s more American than Korean. But that makes it a good introduction for someone who is knitting. (She has also seen Boon's Okja, and liked it.) #476 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. For some reason, I buried some of my best thinking about Snowpiercer in a tagged-on paragraph the first time I wrote about it, so I'll cut-and-paste a bit of that here, changing my original focus:
The construction of Snowpiercer is ingenious ... it’s also perfect for a good six-page essay in an honors class for college undergraduates. The class structure presented in the film is clearly delineated, and while you could watch Snowpiercer simply as an entertaining action movie, it is almost impossible to miss the underlying themes about class. That’s why it would make a good topic for an undergraduate essay: there is something to talk about, but it isn’t hard to find. It would also make a good topic for an extended essay that closely broke down the presentation of class, critically analyzing what Bong has done. But I’m not going to write either of these on this blog, not a six-page essay, not a chapter for a book. I’m going to write a paragraph, or two or three. And in the case of Snowpiercer, once I’ve mentioned the basics, I don’t see the point in adding a paragraph to state the obvious: that the cars on the train represent various social classes, that even if the nominal hero manages to take the train away from the nominal villain, nothing concerning classes will have been truly answered, that the two young people who escape the train are the future because they don’t conquer the train, they escape it. I could say all that, but if you watch the movie, you’ll figure it out for yourself. And unless I’m prepared to write 2500 words on the subject, I’m better off just sticking to a paragraph.
The Nerdwriter offers an interesting (spoiler-filled) take on the movie:
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974).Fear Eats the Soul continues my very gradual introduction to the work of Fassbinder. (I watched my first, The Marriage of Maria Braun, in 2009, and my second, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, in 2015.) Still to come is Berlin Alexanderplatz, the 14-part, 15 1/2-hour long TV series which I have had on my By Request list for a very long time ... it has been hard to find, but now it's on the Criterion Channel so I don't have any excuses. I feel like I'm still searching for the common thread in what Fassbinder I've seen. Not that it doesn't exist, but watching three films over the course of ten years is not conducive to the discovering of commonality. I've liked them all. The story of a May-December romance (better described as June-November, I think), Fear Eats the Soul doesn't limit the examination of difference to the ages of the two romantic leads. Brigitte Mira, who plays Emmi, a woman in her 60s, had already had a long career in show business, but it was Ali that made her something of a household name in Germany. (She went on to become a Fassbinder regular and lived another 30 years.) Emmi is a realist who is surprised to find herself in love with Ali, a couple of decades younger than her. Ali is also surprised, but their affection seems genuine. Ali is played by El Hedi ben Salem, who like his character is a Moroccan living in Germany (in real life, Salem had moved to Germany to be in a relationship with Fassbinder). The film takes place a few months after the massacre at the Munich Olympics, and Arabs are the victims of prejudice in part because of that event. Thus, the struggles of the couple are not limited to their age difference. Emmi's family and workmates all disapprove of her marrying an Arab, and as problems arise in the relationship, the reasons are less because they are different ages and more because they come from different cultures. Salem's acting is amateurish, which works well here, emphasizing the awkward state of living outside your culture. And mention should be made of Barbara Valentin, "the German Jayne Mansfield", who underplays her oozing sexuality and serves as a visual and emotional contrast to Emmi. This movie is said to be based on Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, but I think the connection is more that Fassbinder was influenced by Sirk than that the specific movies are tied together (although they do have similar basic plots). #135 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
To copy what I said at this time in 2015: “A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Anything I give at least a 9 rating is something I recommend ... might sound obvious, but if someone is actually looking to me for suggestions, that limits the list to 15. So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.”
8: 13th 20th Century Women Andrei Rublev The Dreamers Fat Girl Girlfriends Hail, Caesar! The Handmaiden Hell or High Water The Host I Walked with a Zombie Journey to Italy Klute Lady Bird Melancholia Okja Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Persepolis Real Women Have Curves The Southerner Terminator 2 Them! Three To Walk Invisible Train to Busan Vengeance
7: 10 Cloverfield Lane 2 Days in Paris The Amazing Mr. X Bad Kids The Bare-Footed Kid Bedlam The Black Cat Blade Runner Doctor Strange Don't Breathe Drug War The Fly The Happiness of the Katakuris Gimme Shelter High Noon Ip Man 2 Jesse James Johnny Guitar Lifeline The Lobster Love Actually Marshall My Night at Maud's The Panic in Needle Park A Place in the Sun Punch-Drunk Love Road to Morocco The Set-Up Some Came Running Spielberg Stalag 17 Stalker The Thing To Catch a Thief Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives The Unknown Village of the Damned Wanda Wonder Woman
6: The Best Offer Biker Boyz Colossal Youth Cop Car Genocide Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Guess Who's Coming to Dinner The Haunted Strangler In the Heart of the Sea The Intervention Jesus' Son The Mad Monk The Maltese Falcon (1931) The Mirror Rudderless Shoot 'Em Up The Time Travelers The Vampire Lovers
5: Return of the Fly A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop Zabriskie Point
4: Anything Goes The Ghost Galleon The Screaming Skull
I got off to a mediocre start with Chan-wook Park. The first movie of his I saw, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I thought it was a mess made by a talented director. ("It would be not only unfair, but incorrect, to say that Park Chan-wook is a talentless hack. But no matter how many flourishes he adds, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is just another incoherent gorefest.") I've seen a lot more Korean horror movies since then, and I might think differently about that movie now. Anyway, next up was Oldboy, and color me impressed. ("While Mr. Vengeance had a plot that was at times incoherent and at times shallow, Oldboy’s narrative grabs the viewer from the start and never lets up. And the themes, of love and taboos, and the allusions, to Kafka and Memento, make Oldboy into a full experience.") Finally, there was the third film in the "Vengeance Trilogy", Lady Vengeance, which was as gorgeous to look at as the others (if you can make it through the violence, that is) and found a way to bring the plot together with a remarkable ending.
None of this prepared me for The Handmaiden. It's gorgeous, and yes, there are some violent scenes, although nothing to match Oldboy. But so much is different. It's based on a novel, Fingersmith, by Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Waters set her story in Victorian Britain ... Park moved the setting to Korea in the 1930s, when Korea was occupied by Japan. This adds depth to the film, although I admit I'm sure I missed much of it. Still, the relationship between Koreans and Japanese culture is shown clearly enough. The plot, which as far as I can tell sticks fairly closely to the novel, involves a con man trying to marry a rich woman for her money. I could say a lot more, but one of the great pleasures of The Handmaiden is following the twists and turns of the plot, so I'll just say that very little is as it seems. Even the manner in which the various twists unfold is elegant ... it's almost a spoiler to say that the twists exist, because Park takes his time getting to that part of his tale.
The film features a handful of fairly explicit sex/love scenes, and I'm of two minds about them. On the one hand, the scenes are lovely, and the actresses are quite beautiful. These are not what you might call "Game of Thrones" scenes, either, tossed in just for titillation. No, these scenes reveal both character and plot, and are, as they say, "integral" to the story. Nonetheless, more than one critic has accused Park of falling back on the male gaze to inform his work in those scenes. Park has argued that his film shows the damage the male gaze does to women, citing in particular scenes where one of the women reads books to groups of men. I'm not sure where I come down on this. They are used effectively, but I don't think Park totally escapes his desire to show hot women doing hot things with each other in a way that men would enjoy.
Still, there is much to like here, even to love. At times, it's like watching a Korean movie directed by Guillermo del Toro, and I mean that as a compliment. #399 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.
Okja is the fifth movie by Joon-Ho Bong that I have seen. I've been impressed by all of them ... even as his films test different genres, there is a consistency to the quality of his work. As I wrote of Memories of Murder:
Thus far, Bong has demonstrated the ability to make very good movies, but for some reason, I wouldn’t put any of them in the “great” range just yet. He’s got time, of course, and he has yet to make a stinker. Even his American movie was good (Snowpiercer). Bong is reliably consistent, even though there is no telling what he’ll come up with next.
If there's a problem with this consistency, it's that I am running out of things to say. But I was also prescient ... there is no telling what he'll do next, and Okja is a perfect example. Like Snowpiercer, Okja is an American movie. Unlike Snowpiercer, a significant amount of the film is in Korean. Snowpiercer was a futuristic sci-fi dystopia; The Host was a monster movie; Memories was a procedural. And now Okja, an anti-corporation tale where the title character is a genetically-modified "super pig" and the main human character is a young Korean girl (played by Ahn Seo-hyun). It's a bit like a live-action Miyazaki movie, except with cussing and some brutal slaughterhouse scenes.
The cast is interesting, with Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead, Paul Dano, Lily Collins, and Devon Bostick from The 100 as a group of animal-rights activists. Giancarlo Esposito is a bad guy, and Tilda Swinton (who was also in Snowpiercer) plays twin sisters. Swinton manages to chew the scenery while somehow being subtle about it, although this may just be her ethereal look, the way she seems magnificently odd.
I mention this because the worst part of Okja comes from Jake Gyllenhaal, whose overacting takes over the movie whenever he's on the screen. Gyllenhaal has been fine in many films, and I'm not sure what has prompted this performance, which is as if Ace Ventura popped in for a lengthy cameo. In such cases, my tendency is to blame the director. Gyllenhaal doesn't make Okja unwatchable ... I'm exaggerating his awfulness, and he is not the main character. But he, as much as anything, contributes to Okja being yet another Bong movie that is very good, but not great.
Bong is one the best living directors, and he's only 47. To quote myself, he's got time, and he has yet to make a stinker. 8/10.
Genre fare often offers implicit commentary on the state of social affairs (sometimes it's explicit). This can be illuminating when you are familiar with the social context, but I feel I am missing something when I watch films from other countries. So I know that Train to Busan is seen by some as an allegory for Korean politics, but I don't know enough about the topic to be able to identify the allegory. It's not that the allegory is missing, it's that I am missing the allegory.
Which thus leaves me to react to Train to Busan on its genre elements. And on that level, this is a terrific movie. Wikipedia calls it a "zombie apocalypse action thriller", and that pretty much gets it. The zombies are of the fast-moving variety. One article by Ezra Klein suggests that such zombies are "too fast to be truly scary", and a case can be made that the slower version of zombies have a better chance of taking over the world. But the fast ones are indeed scary in the immediate sense, especially when there are lots of them. This was the case in World War Z, but the huge budget for that movie seemed to make it more a special-effects extravaganza than a character-driven thriller.
Train to Busan is constructed like a classic thriller. Right from the start, there are intimations of the horrors to come, but they are only intimations. Still, the suspense is serious (after all, we know the zombies are coming). And once the zombies arrive (fairly quickly), the suspense is replaced with open-jawed thrills.
Two things in particular make Train to Busan impressive. First, there is a dedication to the characters, who are painted in quick scenes but who always feel slightly more than stock from the genre's closet. We care about the characters, which isn't a necessary component to a zombie thriller, but it does lift this movie a bit above the rest. Second, the zombies really are impressive. It's not just that they are fast, it's that they feel real. I don't know how much, if any, CGI Yeon used, but it's very old-school in its presentation, as if instead of going straight to the computer, they actually hired a bunch of extras. Yeon's previous work was in animation, and the zombies have the kind of physics-defying qualities you'll see in cartoons.
The tension is mostly non-stop, with little time to take a breath. I don't suppose Train to Busan will appeal to people who don't like zombie movies, but it certainly ranks high within the genre. 8/10.
I wrote about The Host almost ten years ago, and I guess you could it was a case of damning with faint praise, when I devoted a mere one sentence to what I thought was a 7/10 movie: “Korean monster movie, a few dozen rungs above what you'd see on any random Saturday on the Sci-Fi Channel, if not quite the 5-star masterpiece some critics call it.” Having just watched it again, I have to say, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking back in 2008. At the least, I should have realized that “a few dozen rungs” is a lot.
Partly, I have context now, having seen a lot of Korean horror since 2008. Just to take Bong’s movies, there are Memories of Murder, Mother, and Snowpiercer (the latter actually being his American sci-fi-action flick). In other words, I’m a fan of Bong and Korean movies in ways I wasn’t when I first saw The Host, so I’m more predisposed to like it.
There are other little things ... Scott Wilson, who’s had a long career in everything from In Cold Blood and The Great Gatsby to The Walking Dead, has a cameo at the beginning of the movie. And Doona Bae, who I hadn’t noticed before in several movies, but who is a fave of mine on Sense8, so now when I re-watch The Host, there’s Bae as the archer. These are the kinds of things that bring a familiarity to The Host that wasn’t there before.
But enough explaining. I still missed the boat, because The Host isn’t just a few dozen rungs better than Sharknado, it’s in another league. The monster is cheesy but intriguing. The political undercurrents are there without taking over the movies. And the core characters, from a dysfunctional family that responds in various ways to the monster’s appearance, are finely-drawn and interesting in their own right. The Host works as a family drama, even without the monster.
Plus, the comedy isn’t stupid, and like the politics, it never overtakes the movie.
I still think I’d start with Mother if I wanted to introduce someone to the work of Bong Joon-Ho. But The Host is getting closer. #104 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st cenury. 8/10. (At this rate, if I watch it again in 2026 and 2035, I’ll give it a 10/10.) (Trying to imagine me watching a Korean monster movie when I’m 82 years old.)