Screening Korea
Bong Joon-ho’s Reflections on the Dark Side of Modernity in Memories of Murder and The Host
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Written by Ben Eppinger

 

No nation wants to be stuck in the past, but that doesn’t mean modernization doesn’t come without its own struggles as well. Bong Joon-ho’s observations of a rapidly changing Korea depicted in Memories of Murder and The Host reveal a country whose society is readjusting to the modern era. Over the past 30 years the economic, political, infrastructural, and cultural developments have made for a turbulent journey for many citizens. Bong Joon-ho reflect the anxieties brought on by encroaching modernity in his films.

Korea’s surge into modernity left many of its citizens vulnerable. Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian realities depict the unwittingly loss of control many Koreans have been experiencing. This vulnerability is felt by the viewer in both The Host and Memories of Murder. In The Host the futility of the family’s struggle is felt in proportion to size and strength of the monster, as well as the diversion away from their struggle by protests, the South Korean and the US government. In Memories of Murder the sense of futility comes from the feeling of the detectives always being one step behind the killer. The frustration caused by this is especially evident in detective So’s characterization. Bong Joon-ho uses these dystopian realities to personify how Korea’s modernization has betrayed its citizens in certain instances.

Figure 1 – Bong Joon-ho is renowned for his use of color in films. In Memories of Murder as the case increasingly lurks in the mind of detective So the colors become darker and drearier signifying his mental decent (Memories of Murder. Dir. Bong Joon-ho).

Figures 2 – Bong Joon-ho depicts the monster in The Host in an unobscured fashion. Unlike other monster movies such as Cloverfield there is no mystery to the monster in the Host. Although the straightforward depiction of the monster attracts the visual attention of the viewer, it eliminates the mystery surrounding the monster. This leaves the viewer with more mental attention to focus on the family and the satirical dynamics of the film (The Host. Dir. Bong Joon-ho).

 

In Memories of Murder a reflective tone is induced by detective Park’s sudden placement in the 21st century at the closing of the film. His visit to the place of the original murder leaves the viewer with a sense of nostalgia that encases the rest of the events in the film. Bong Joon-ho puts the viewer in the awkward position of almost finding the murders sentimental. Although this makes the horrors of film seem distant in the past it also connects the viewer to them almost as if the memories are their own. The Host has a much more immediate tone affiliated with it as the setting is more contemporary. This is also reflected in the fact that the plot is more action based opposed to Memories of Murder which is more psychologically disturbing. The antagonists in Bong Joon-ho’s films manifests themselves based on the setting, with the monster from The Host being a more immediate threat while the killer in Memories of Murder causes more cognitive stress.This allows the tones and commentary that these antagonists pose on Korean Modernity to be better absorbed by the viewer.

Figure 3 – Bong Joon-ho uses soft yellows and browns at the beginning and end of Memories of Murder to instill a feeling of nostalgia in the viewer (Memories of Murder. Dir. Bong Joon-ho).

 

Social and cultural growing pains
Bong Joon-ho makes Gang-du’s family the focal point of The Host to bring attention to how to the role of family has changed with the modernization of South Korea. He explains further saying “If you try to focus not on the monster but on the family and what happens around the family, for example they don’t get any help from the government or the society or the neighbors, then you can appreciate the satire better.” (Walsh P58). In The Host it is very much the family vs the world. Their isolation in their struggle suggests that modernization has created a society of people who are more self centered and less communal than their ancestors. There are a multitude of catalysts for this development in culture. One could be the effects of a lengthy trend of urban migration.  Many urbanites have ancestors who are from rural areas (Jeon  P86). Of course by leaving their families behind each passing generation of urbanites have fewer roots in their new place of inhabitance. As generations in families are separated so are intergenerational ties between different families. The family in The Host contradicts this trend by uniting across three generations. The lack of assistance that Gang-du and his family receives could be a commentary on how modernity has left behind the values of community and family.

Bong Joon-ho structures the family in The Host to represent multiple generations and archetypes of Korea (Lane). This allows the family to be relatable as possible, to a spectrum of Korean viewers. Younger viewers can identify with Gang-du’s daughter while older viewers can identify with Gang-du’s father. Young adults can identify with either of Gang-du’s sibling depending on how successful they see themselves. Then of course there is Gang-du himself who resembles in many ways some of Bong Joon-ho’s earlier characters from Memories of Murder. Detective Park and detective Cho fulfil the same archetype that Bong Joon-ho uses Gang-du for. He explains further saying “Superheroes are very boring to me. I like the losers, the incapable, and quite indolent characters like the detectives in Memories of Murder. They didn’t look terribly capable so when they take on this impossible type of mission, that gives me an opportunity to create real human drama.” (Walsh P56). As Memories of Murder and The Host work to present the struggles intrinsic to modernism the use of imperfect characters works in unison with this mission. The average viewer surely has more in common with these unlikely heroes than they would a James Bond or Superman. As the Bong Joon-ho’s bumbling protagonists battle manifestations of evil both their bravery and relatability engross the viewer in the plot.

Figure 4 – Gang-du is an unlikely hero, yet he shows courage in the face of danger, and allows for his family to be united behind the goal of saving his daughter (The Host. Dir. Bong Joon-ho).

 

Bong Joon-ho also comments on the development of ideology in modernism. With modernism and intrinsically globalization developing with it, webs of motives and influences become exponentially complex. Facts and history become increasingly subjective as lies and deception become more and more commonplace. In this new era of obscured truth people become more attached to their ideologies as a means of understanding and simplifying the world. This concept is present in The Host manifested by the role of the fictional virus fabricated by the US. The motivation for this deceit by US could be interpreted as a means to control and cover up the wrongdoing in the McFarland incident. Also the role of the US in the film is surely to some extent is homage paid to the Cold War, possibly the largest and deadliest battle of ideologies in human history. Ultimately theses ideological actions by the US stop Gang-du and his family from saving his daughter and stops the Korean government from killing the monster (Lee P47). This demonstrates the dilemma of the remaining US military presence and their tendency to act in their own self interest or in accordance to their nation building doctrines. This all culminates in the climax of of this film where a standoff between the government and protesters against the use of agent yellow take place (Clover P6). Ultimately the virus myth diverts the attention of the well to do protestors away from the monster and saving Gang-du’s daughter. This further isolates the family in the final act. Bong Joon-ho drives the plot as much by the terrorization of the monster as he does with ideological diversion away from the monster. In this way he creates two sides of the antagonist. The physical manifestation of the monster itself as well as the refusal or inability to confront the monster.

Figure 5 – Rather than fighting the monster, or even enabling the Korean government to fight the it, the US tirelessly hunt down Gang-du over concern that he may be contaminated with a virus (The Host. Dir. Bong Joon-ho).

 

The theme of ideological divisions manifesting in modern Korea plays itself out in Memories of Murder. This is expressed by the press working to power check the police throughout the film (Jeon P93). This has a lot to do with the setting of the movie and the fact that the film coincides with the end of Tu-hwan’s military dictatorship in 1987 (Jeon P83). Scares of the Gwangju massacre are reflected in the presses hounding of the police chief over rumors of torture and abuse of suspects, which in all fairness are true. Still the detectives and the press seem at odds throughout the movie. Detective Park seems to not understand the full ramifications of abusing power, while the press seem to be more interested in antagonising the police than the serial killer. The anti-authority ideology of the press diverges attention from the killer, while detective Park’s righteous ideology victimizes innocent suspects. Bong Joon-ho uses the serial killer as a mechanism to show the rift between these contrasting ideologies. While both ideologies have their merits and flaws Bong Joon-ho doesn’t champion one over the other, rather opting to present the rift created by them as detrimental.

There are other social divisions created by modernization that are commented on by Bong Joon-ho. One in Memories of Murder is the divide between university graduates and non university graduates. This seems to be the main distinction between detective Park and detective So. Interestingly this division is bridged with detective So’s characterization throughout the film. Throughout the film as pressure mounts  and the case becomes more personal detective So starts to trade in his by the book approach for detective Park’s more outlaw-ish wild west standards. By the climax of the film detective So rejects the DNA evidence from the American lab which exempts the suspect (Jeon P85). Despite the DNA test he is still convinced he has found the perpetrator and it is surprisingly detective Park who stops detective So from lethally shooting him. Commentary on the role of university in Korean culture is also presented in The Host. Gang-du’s brother Nam il fulfills the archetype of the unemployed college graduate. After sacrificing to go to university he seems to be betrayed by the modernism which has instilled a degree as admission into the middle class. In a turn of events Nam il redeems himself by knowing how to make molotov cocktails (a trait he learned at university) enabling him to slay the monster (Clover P6). By commenting on the role of university in both the 80s and 2000s Bong Joon-ho shows how the flow of modernity has changed the role of university from a class divider to a dead end for young Koreans.

Figure 6 – Detective So about to kill the suspect on train tracks.Note the starkness of this shot. In this shot it could be interpreted that Bong Joon-ho uses the train as a symbol of unremitting progression of modernity in culture. The train has also be interpreted as having this symbolic meaning in Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy (Memories of Murder. Dir. Bong Joon-ho).

 

Another example of this class division is when detective Cho overhears a college student talking about how policemen should be mutilated for their abuse of power. This sparks detective Cho’s tirade which ends with him getting a rusty nail plunged in his leg. Because of this Detective Cho has to get his leg amputated perhaps as symbolic retribution for his abuse of suspects as a cop (Jeon P75). Even still while detective Cho suffers retribution, the murderer is never convicted or punished. It is important to note the hint of irony in the college students criticism of the police, as she does so ignoring her own privilege. Despite all the faults of detectives Cho and Park there work is not glorious. Their department is underfunded, they are antagonized by the press, and worst of all they are forced to witness terrible deeds. Furthermore they have been thrust into this line work without having the privilege of attending university and learning everything that makes So a superior detective. Despite all this detective Cho and Park carry out their jobs with the utmost zeal. Given this perspective which Bong Joon-ho provides the viewer, the college student’s criticism of the blundering yet exuberant detective comes off as extremely petchilant. The point of view that Bong Joon-ho frames Memories of Murder with presents the clashes between police and citizens that characterized the 70s and 80s as a cultural divide rather than oppression. The is similar to Lee Chang-dong’s characterization of his protagonist in Peppermint Candy, where a well to do aspiring photographer becomes morphed by his surrounding environment, ultimately developing as abusive and tyrannical, a combination of an innocent individual and a corrupt environment.  

 

Economic and infrastructural growing pains
The region of Seoul experienced extreme economic growth during the 1960s and 1970s known as the miracle of the Han (Lane). The Host in particular works in ways to display the dark side of this “miracle”.  The economic surge of the 60s and 70s was largely triggered by foreign investment. Eventually this rapidly expanding economy started to show signs of growing pains.  The early 1990s were characterized by a series of infrastructural failures including collapsing bridges, and exploding construction sites (Hwang 236). These failures were usually due to lax oversight from government officials who had been bribed by business tycoons (Hwang P237). Bong Joon-ho pays homage to this culture of bribery with Gang-du’s father attempting to bribe doctors in The Host (Lane). In a sense this political corruption and infrastructural failure were a betrayal of modernization which victimized Koreans in their own country. Bong Joon-ho’s critiques of contemporary and modern Korean society reflect the disillusionments that citizens were forced to face in the wake of modernization. The failure of the Korean authorities to protect its citizens from the monster, while opting instead to appease the Americans and their obsession on quarantines exemplifies a failure on the behalf of Korean politics to protect their voters.

With this modernity intrinsically came globalization. A side effect of this was a sentiment from the Korean people of a lack of autonomy in their very own country, especially considering the remaining American military presence that persists still to this day. Bong Joon-ho talks about how this sentiment manifests itself in The Host through the McFarland incident. “ in 2000 there was an actual incident, the McFarland incident, where an American army base released toxic chemicals into the Han River. When I read the newspaper article about this, it helped me develop that initial idea” (Walsh P56). In a sense the monster which is mutated by the formaldehyde dumped into the Han river is the the manifestation of this foreign power. Bong Joon-ho connects this mutation and the terror it inflicts on civilians to this anti American sentiment. He propagates this idea with the role of the US in the film. The fixation the US has on stopping the virus which in turn derails Gang-du form saving his daughter symbolizes the greater deleterious effects of global influence in a modernized era. Even in relations with a power as overbearing as the US a country must act in the interest of its own citizens before appeasing allies.   

South Korea’s modernized economy showed growing pains particularly in 1997 as hordes of workers were laid off in the IMF crisis which was caused by a sharp decrease in the value of the Korean won (Hwang P237). Koreans felt embarrassed over the IMF bailout and the control that the IMF held over them because of it (Hwang P237). The IMF austerity measure created a sense of a lack of autonomy. Where the 70s and 80s had been characterized by the struggle for workers rights, now Koreans seemed belittled and at the mercy of the benefit of huge multinational corporations. Given Korea’s past of colonization, negative responses to external powers are understandable. This feeling of vulnerability in the wake of modernity is symbolized by Bong Joon-ho and Lee Chang-dong in Memories of Murder and Peppermint Candy with the use the trains throughout the films . The symbol of the train is instilled with a relation to industrialization and modernism, yet the way Bong Joon-ho and Lee Chang-dong have their characters interact with the train alters its symbolic meaning. The uncompromising forward movement of the train in relation to the protagonists in Memories of Murder and Peppermint Candy draws a parallel to the blistering progression of Korean culture and the struggles related to it. Bong Joon-ho does not include specific references to the economy in his films yet he does reflect the sentiments caused by economic turbulences.

Figure 4 – In Peppermint Candy Yongho decides to commit suicide on train tracks while in Memories of Murder detective So’s DNA evidence is trampled by the train. In both films the train is intermittently present and then is utilized to progress the climax (Peppermint Candy. Dir. Lee Chang-dong).

 

Just like a train the progression of modernity stops for no one, perhaps not out of malice but simple inability. Looking at Memories of Murder and The Host as commentaries on a modernized Korea is important because they help the viewer understand subtle connotations of a rapidly progressing society. Bong Joon-ho’s films reflect sentiments felt by a population withstanding infrastructural failures, economic collapses, and dramatic social changes all in the span of 30 years. Bong Joon-ho’s commitment to personifying the dark spots of modernization help a nation with a troubled past continue to strive to become better.  

 

Sources Cited

Clover, Joshua. “All That Is Solid Melts into War.” Film Quarterly 61.1 (2007): 6-7. Jstor. Web. 12 May 2017

The Host. Dir. Bong Joon-ho. Perf. Song Kang-ho Byun Hee-bong Park Hae-il Bae Doona Go Ah-sung. Magnolia Pictures, 2006. Web

Hwang, Kyung Moon. History of Korea. Place of Publication Not Identified: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Print.

Jeon, Joseph. “Memories of Memories: Historicity, Nostalgia, and Archive in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder Authors:.” Cinema Journal (2011): 75-95. Web.

Lane, Anthony. “Down by the River.” New Yorker 12 Mar. 2007: 90-91. Literary Reference Center. Web.

Lee, Nikki. “Localized Globalization and a Monster National: The Host and the South Korean Film Industry.” Cinema Journal 50.3 (2011): 45-61. Film & Television Literature Index. Web.

Memories of Murder. Dir. Bong Joon-ho. Perf. Song Kang-ho Kim Sang-kyung Kim Roi-ha Park Hae-il Byun Hee-bong. CJ Entertainment, 2003. Web.

Peppermint Candy. Dir. Lee Chang-dong. Perf. Sol Kyung-gu Moon So-ri Kim Yeo-jin. Shindo Films Cineclick Asia, 2000. Web.

Walsh, Mike. “Playing “Host” to Bong Joon-ho.” 152 (2007): 54-59. Biography Reference Center. Web.

 

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