Bong Joon-ho: laughing at genres

It seems critics are incapable of writing about Bong Joon-ho without talking about genres.  Sometimes he’s called a master of genres, other times he’s praised for reinventing them, mixing them, or transcending them.  Critics love to count them off: to date, there’s the quirky comedy (Barking Dogs Never Bite), the police procedural (Memories of Murder), the monster film (The Host), and the melodrama (Mother).  And from there, critics love to express fascination over the way the films seem to defy such genres while inhabiting them.  The Host is also a family melodrama, Memories of Murder is also a black comedy, Mother is, as Manohla Dargis puts it, “a love story that turns into a crime story before fusing into something of a criminal love story.”

If Bong’s films slip from every genre they encounter, if they defy categorization at every plot turn, why bother evoking genres at all?  If genres are defined by the categorical cleanness of their boundaries, aren’t Bong’s films “genre-less”?  The temptation to classify the unclassifiable reminds us of Derrida’s famous take on genres: that all texts have genres, even multiple ones, not because they belong to genres per se, but because they diffusely participate in a kind of understood generic code shared by writers and readers.  So it’s not that Bong’s films are melodramas or monster films, but that they evoke genres, manipulating them for other purposes, and in the process mix them into incomprehensibility.

Isn’t this paradox the same one debated over multiculturalism and post-racialism?  Is a cultural-hybrid – a mestizo, a hapa, a migrant, an ethnic minority – the “sum of its parts” or the transcendence of such categories altogether?  One of the most exciting aspects of Bong’s four features to date is that they pose both sides as possibilities, and then, fittingly, laughs in the face of the paradox.

To Bong, genres are nothing more than categories placed on certain situations, characters, settings, and narrative traditions.  Bong has mastered many such tropes, and so it’s tempting to think he’s a master of genres as well.  And yet, in interview after interview, Bong acknowledges his awareness of genres but hesitates before naming the genres of his own films, preferring instead to talk about thematic considerations.  For instance, on Mother, he admits to crime film influences, but that “ultimately it’s story about a strange mother and son.”

So if we look beyond genre and toward themes, we find a compelling resistance of classification that is resonant with issues of identity.  In fact, Bong’s films often pose the question: when driven to the extremes of the human experience, are we willing to drop our classifications?  In, Shaking Tokyo, Bong’s short film in the omnibus Tokyo!, a hikikomori is enamored by an adorable girl’s exposed thighs and angelic vulnerability (embodied by teen darling Yu Aoi).  A flurry of infatuation and the seduction of possibility overcome him.  In the face of love, can a hikikomori choose to stop being a hikikomori?  Or can a hikikomori simultaneously be a lover?


In Mother, Bong wrings our morality through the opposing pressures of maternal love and social order.  If a mother commits a murder to clear her son of the very same crime, does that make her the ultimate mother?  Or the worst possible one, since we get clues the son realizes her sin?  Bong Joon-ho refuses to define for us what a mother is or what she must do.  More than most directors, he understands that such definitions are untenable in a world of social unrest, of bureaucratic disorder, of authoritarial ineptness.  And he never places blame or makes qualitative judgment, no matter the outcome.  What we get at the end of Mother isn’t a new or hybridized definition of motherhood, but a daze in the form of dance: flailing arms, strobing sunlight, a jittery camera. It’s not just ambiguity, but a refusal to judge, settling instead for that mambo-like delirium, that sensorial sunset-on-your skin warbling jubilance experienced on the road of motherhood.  (The last shot: a busload of mothers.)  The way out of the paradox is through empathetic feeling.

Memories of Murder coldly depicts just what happens one tries to classify – or in this case, profile.  If a man wears red panties, is he the killer?  What about a man with soft hands?  The police too are subject to profiling: by all stereotypes, the city cop believes in order and the rule of law, and the country cop believes in intuition and brute force.  Of course, doting on personal identities, which are then elevated to the status of probable cause, leads to one disaster after another.  As in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, released the same year as Memories of Murder, clues and character types are scattered throughout – a crying woman, an outhouse, red clothes, a Band-Aid – yet they drive us in indefinite directions because we insist that they must be pieces in a puzzle, rather than simply people or objects.

In one of the film’s final moments, a cop who prides himself on being the ultimate profiler stares a suspect in the eye, only to finally realize he sees nothing.  In the film’s final shot, the cop looks directly at the camera and says the killer is probably an ordinary person.  Given that the film exposes the cop’s brutality, we’re tempted to accuse the authorities for being the true killers.  (The film is often called a critique of Korea under martial law.)  But his gaze into the camera is unsettling for another reason: he’s looking at us.  Are we who possess the gaze, we who play along as armchair profilers of this murder mystery, guilty as well?

That final shot mirrors the film’s opening scene.  Bong loves rhyming his opening shots with his final ones.  Barking Dogs Never Bite begins and ends with shots of nature, and Mother with a perplexing dance.  After an expositional prologue, The Host opens on a boy stealing from a food stall; the film ends on an improbably poignant return to that opening gesture.  But for Bong, a circular return to the beginning is never meant to create geometric order.  It’s there instead to drive us in circles, to lead us back to the beginning dizzier than ever.  We have not transcended the beginning, but nor have we surrendered to the myth that a return to origins provides some kind of order.

There’s a sneakiness at play here.  A snarkiness.  A mischievousness.  Bong Joon-ho never rests at the opportunity to joke around and jostle our minds a bit, an extraordinary achievement given how disciplined Bong is as a storyteller.  As Dennis Lim puts it, while Bong defies genres, he seems to nevertheless operate in a consistent tonal mode: black comedy.  Not surprisingly, so often comedy is Bong’s preferred strategy for breaking our expectations of how people can be defined.  In Mother, a lawyer makes a rather bizarre joke about buffets (he eats standing up because it saves time) which seems to throw away our (and the mother’s) entire sense of what a defense attorney is.


In one of the most memorable split-seconds of The Host, a father attempts to save his daughter from a charging monster.  In the chaos, he grabs her hand, only to soon realize that he’s grabbed the hand of someone else’s daughter.  We gasp at the tragedy but laugh at the shocking hilarity of the mistake.  Then he lets go of the other girl.  At such a moment, is he a father who cares only for his own daughter, or a man of the community who will save all daughters from the charging creature?  From the comedy comes a central moral dilemma about identity that persists until the film’s final scene.

And then there’s the nose-bleed reverse-shot.  It’s happened in three of Bong’s films so far and I’m tempted to call it a signature image in Bong’s young oeuvre.  A character will look off-frame.  The camera then cuts to what she’s looking at: a face with blood dripping from the nose.  The reverse-shot is always a shocker.  One never gets used to a face sullied suddenly by crimson, the flow of blood kinesthetically triggering the nerves on our own upper lips as if we could feel warm viscous blood tracking down our own faces.  It’s also funny.  The absurdity of unprompted blood somehow never gets old.   We’re fixated on the nosebleed just as the viewer in the scene is.  The nosebleed is such an effective narrative device: it draws attention to the bleeder by having our heart skip a beat and tickling our taste for dark comedy.


When it happens in Mother, the nosebleed helps us identify a character: the nosebleed becomes a critical clue about the identity of a murderer.  In Barking Dogs Never Bite, the opposite happens: the nosebleed distracts the viewer from identifying the cold-blooded killer.  While the nosebleed seems to serve different purposes, they in fact operate the same way: to raise the question of identity via shock and humor.  That the result is different is simply a result of different punchlines to the same joke.

But Bong is too sneaky to let it simply be about identity.  Hidden beneath the joke, the joke’s engine which needs to be suppressed to create the humor, is the disturbing heart of the matter: why is the person’s nose bleeding to begin with?  The blood seems unprovoked to the viewer, thus making the nosebleed such an effective foil and such a hilarious image.  But Bong leaves it a devastating mystery for those who care.  In these two films, the nose might be dripping with blood for any number of reasons: guilt, fear, anger, confusion, exasperation, etc.  These characters are suffering: one will soon be murdered, the other has already murdered.  The nosebleed doesn’t explicate what that suffering is, only that hurt is happening, and that’s sufficient for Bong.  If we can look beyond the identity-baiting, we may notice that there are emotions at stake, emotions too complex for us to pin-point and categorize, but clear enough as blood dripping down a person’s face.


Cinema is the future of man

This is my first piece on Korean director Hong Sang-soo, written on the occasion of the release of A Tale of Cinema. Originally published in Asia Pacific Arts.

Hong Sang-soo has found a clever and endlessly fertile narrative strategy for exploring his world of coincidences, humiliations, and emotional transcendence. In each of his six features to date, Hong tells us two stories in each, not by cross-cutting them a la Robert Altman but by laying them one after the other, such that the A and B stories play off of each other enigmatically and abstractly rather than in clearly-defined contrasts or edited juxtapositions. In The Day a Pig Fell into the Well and The Power of Kangwon Province, characters mentioned in the first story emerge in the second, not only giving an additional dimension to the characters and plot, but also evoking the deathly connections between friends and strangers, culminating in both films with mysterious and cruel deaths. In Woman is the Future of Man and Turning Gate, the two stories represent a past and a present, and the way characters repeat or contradict their misogynies, gestures, lines, or emotional tics from story A to story B tell us all we need to know about their motivations and tragic flaws. For a while, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors featured Hong’s most experimental dual narratives by playing a young woman’s gradual deflowering from two Rashomon-like perspectives, but that film’s status has now been overtaken by Hong’s newest: the formally flashy, and surprisingly warm A Tale of Cinema, which juxtaposes the story of a young director and the victim of his stalkerish aspirations, with a deathly funny film-within-a film of Solondz-esque proportions.

This structure works because Hong is especially good at repetition, or at least the illusion of repetition. In A Tale of Cinema, the repetition of the words “Let’s die together” (the coldest line of pillow talk imaginable) by the young director parallels the same line at the center of the short film which begins A Tale of Cinema. But rather than simply saying that life imitates art, Hong seems to be showing how cinema becomes the mental bedrock of everyday life; our earthly desires entangle with our cinematic ones in strange and often ugly ways. In Turning Gate, it’s the same love story played twice, only the term “I love you,” an empty signifier scholar Kyung Hyun Kim sees as central to Hong’s cinema, takes on different meanings when uttered in each section. The tragedy at the end of the film isn’t the protagonist’s romantic rejection, but the irony of “I love you” as it is played out in the two stories. The near-repetitions in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors don’t just show variations on the same story, it conjures to the fore the plot’s sinister shadow, revealing the male chauvinism and sexual domination lurking beneath what at first seemed like simply one of the many threesomes in Hong Sang-soo’s oeuvre. In A Tale of Cinema, the formal style of the short film which opens the film — namely the dramatic zoom-ins and voice-over narration which have never before been encountered in Hong’s films — is repeated in the “real” portion which follows the short film. Tricking us into thinking that these cinematic devices were characteristics of the film-within-the-film, and then repeating these devices when we think we’re back in Hong’s usual territory of static silence, Hong further blurs the line between fact and fiction.

There are also repetitions between films. Most famous are Hong’s use of rowdy drinking scenes shot in long takes and his depictions of gritty, static, discomforting, and erotically stale sex which frequently results from the drinking. Drunkenness plays a crucial role in Hong’s stories. On an obvious level, drinking provides the catalyst for confrontation, leading to scenes of humiliation for which Hong is most famous. At the powerful climax of Woman is the Future of Man, drunk characters dance, stumble, fellate, betray, mumble, and humiliate in a literal orgy of dissatisfaction. However, drinking is more than a narrative convenience; it gathers meaning by being depicted as the most primal of social rituals. These scenes are so animalistic that the sex scenes look mechanical in comparison. In The Day a Pig Fell into the Well, the customs of social drinking enable collisions of personalities and desires, culminating almost inevitably in violence. In that film and in A Tale of Cinema, pressures to toast each other in pairs — depicted in the most uncomfortable of long takes — forces characters into compromised situations. This also mirrors the pressures of singing karaoke during drinking which are also evident in those two films. In The Power of Kangwon Province and Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, the very social-ness of drinking — the gathering of friends and colleagues — coupled with the debilitating effects of alcohol, turn petty private bickering into painfully public displays of embarrassment. By A Tale of Cinema, Hong and his audience have become conscious of these effects of social drinking in Hong’s films to the point of self-consciousness: one character tells another, “Don’t get drunk please; let us know if you’re going to get drunk,” as if it’s painfully clear to all parties involved that drinking could only lead to disaster.

If alcohol is the tonic for chaos in Hong’s films, it’s in that lingering hangover which follows that Hong’s characters typically dwell. There’s no better exemplification of this than the final sequence of A Woman is the Future of Man, where friends disperse to literally wander the city, not to “find themselves” or gather their bearings, but to simply walk off that blistering headache convoluted by memories of dashed hopes and regretful despair. At the end of A Tale of Cinema, a film actress runs into the man with whom she had just had a cold sexual encounter the night before. She’s casually trying to figure out his intentions, not because she wants to know if he’s worth continuing a relationship with (clearly he’s not), but so she can more easily shake off the bitter memory of their lustless fuck.

It’s fascinating, then, that so many of Hong’s characters are filmmakers or actors. What is Hong trying to convey by thrusting film people into the cruelties of disappointment, embarrassment, impotence, and disillusion? Is there a connection between this and the fact that Hong is a financially unsuccessful art house director in a country of big-named blockbusters? After all, the issue of art versus commercial cinema does get raised in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. More importantly, much of the tension in Hong’s films is related to the egos of film artists. The fighting in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors comes from an argument between filmmakers over a stolen camera. The tragedy in Turning Gate is set in motion when a film actor begins to pursue a beautiful female fan. In A Tale of Cinema, a failed director becomes dangerously obsessed with a rising star. The main character in Woman is the Future of Man goes to America to become a filmmaker and in the process spurns the woman who loves him; when he comes back to Korea a failure, he thinks he can simply re-claim his ex-lover. These filmmakers and actors (at least the male ones) are studies in moral and emotional vacuousness to say nothing of their chronic helplessness in the realm of romance. If cinema is the future of man, let’s drink to lowered expectations.