Most stateside audiences know director Bong Joon-Ho for 2006’s ludic creature-feature, The Host. South Korea’s most successful film of all time, it became an international smash that earned its director some not totally undeserved comparisons to Spielberg. Now, on the eve of his latest release, Mother, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is running a retrospective of the versatile director’s oeuvre which proves him more than just a monster maven or fanboy favorite.
Bong’s freshman effort, Barking Dogs Never Bite, came and went with little fanfare and never received a proper release in the US. It wasn’t until 2003’s Memories of Murder that he began to make a name for himself. Based on a true story, it pits feckless, small-town cops against South Korea’s first—and still yet unidentified—serial killer. What looks on the surface to be familiar genre-fare is here pleasantly distended by Bong’s ability to swiftly juggle moods. He can combine antithetical notes of pathos and hilarity without seeming at all scattershot or schizophrenic—imagine Zodiac if it were stippled throughout with light comic touches and you’ll get the idea.
The Host, though a far more ambitious project, takes a similar binarism to more epic proportions. This time it’s a feckless family vs. a different kind of unidentified monster: a giant, bloodthirsty sea creature that emerges from Seoul’s Han river. With the help of big-league special effects from, among others, San Francisco’s The Orphanage, Bong again managed to reinvigorate a flyblown genre, this time by pairing the usual hokum with genuine family drama and a heaping spoonful socio-political commentary.
In the wake of The Host’s success, big things were naturally expected of Bong, but Mother shows him going micro. It’s the director’s first echt character study, detailing the anguish and ingenuity of a middle-aged woman hell-bent on defending her dim-witted son against charges of murder. Some colleagues have quibbled that the film’s conclusion is unsatisfying, but I disagree. I also think there’s more emotional heavy-lifting here from lead actress Kim Hye-ja than in all of this year’s best actress performances combined.
Retrospective now through Monday. Go here for more details.