Tag Archives: Korean

Masterclass in Human Relationships – Bong Joon Ho’s Films

If you happen to be on the internet, chances are you have just survived the marketing blitz for Netflix’s recent project Okja. Directed by acclaimed Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho and featuring a star-cast of Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal, a mysterious animal and a sci-fi premise, the film seems to have all the trappings of a typical Hollywood creature feature. After all, this film is from the same director who also made The Host (2006) [however, those who know the acclaimed Korean director only through the monster-attack film have missed out on one of the best collection of movies by a director on a trot]. Bong Joon-Ho delivers a touching film about the relationship between a young girl and her animal friend. Okja offers satirical glimpses at corporate politics, the harsh realities of large scale animal farming and animal abuse, and the cynicism with which activism is comparably positioned with the industries themselves. Like his 2013 film Snowpiercer, Joon-Ho’s film offers a bleak world divided along class, geographical privilege and crucially, the randomness of birth. The melancholy in his films invite reflection and horror. This post takes a quick look at four films which unsettle narrative closure to leave the audience with questions rather than satisfaction.



(MOST SPOILER-HEAVY SECTION) Consider these four frames:

  1. A police officer returns to a scene of crime after 17 years, and looks at the ditch where the first murder took place, reflecting on the fact that they never caught the murderer.
  2. An elderly woman dances in a field to music with a remarkable sadness in her eyes, when she comes to terms with the truth about her son’s innocence.
  3. A young woman and a child exit a perpetually moving train after it has crashed to a halt to find themselves in a frozen world and see a polar bear at a distance.
  4. A young girl has successfully bargained for the life of her animal companion, while similar intelligent animals are designated for the slaughterhouse.


All these scenes are loaded with triumph and sorrow. The characters have failed in what they intended to achieve, and yet they have attained a fulfillment which brings them to rest in their minds. Their character’s story arc gets completed, even though none of these films allow their respective narratives to come to a successful completion. The director’s visual style has changed from one film to another, but his laconic storytelling remains central to his filmmaking. His stories seem to ask after our own discomfort – what does it mean when we feel so conflicted about the choices made by the characters? What does it say when we dread the uncertainties that the characters face in their future? These narratives achingly reach for the viewers’ concern for the characters and raise a grain of unease in our minds. The films do not answer any of these questions –they quietly raises a finger to point to those people that we know who also live in similar worlds.

Memories of Murder

Bong Joon-Ho’s command over subtle use of visual grammar in the 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder and its spiritual sequel Mother from 2009 prevents us from getting too relaxed while watching the them. Instead, we feel disquieted with the gentle flow of the narrative, which keeps preparing us for a dramatic jolt. While it is expected to see characters are challenged by the significance of their choices, these films push the audience to weigh the significance as well. Both films develop the audience relationship with the characters and their goals to a point where the resolution seems inevitable. And yet, the ultimate ending, while consistent with the narrative world, offers no solace to the characters. Similarly, in Snowpiercer and Okja, the success of the characters have come at a high price and their future remains uncertain regardless of the immediate outcomes the encounter.

A deep sorrow engulfs you before the film begins, Mother

The South Korean filmmaker’s measured pace and introspective narratives have been extensively discussed and praised. What I enjoy the most about his work is the sense of incompleteness that prevents the films from fully slipping away from your mind. Instead, the films linger with you, challenging your understanding of how narratives work, and mildly chiding you for your certainties about people and their behavior. The behavior of people who encounter situations way beyond the scope of their ability is perfectly captured in 2003’s Memories of Murder. When three under-prepared police officers try to solve a mystery while contending with an incompetent working environment, they elicit the audiences’ sympathy and anger at the same time. Their motivations may spring from a righteous desire to bring a murderer to justice, and yet their repeated failure seems a fair reward to their working methods. In Mother, we see an exceptional circumstance that stretch the limits of the everyday relationship between mother and son.


The most compelling aspect of these films to me, is not their ability to present a deep discomfort, but in the gentle humor they incorporate throughout the narratives. Tilda Swinton’s monstrous villain in Okja is prone to excesses that reveals her desire to be appreciated in comparison to her sister. The steely-eyed Giancarlo Esposito also plays a humorous turn involving a cup of coffee while delivering some classic supervising henchman role. In Snowpiercer, there are a plenty of terse moments undercut with double-take inducing gag-shots. And perhaps unforgettably, an interrogation scene in Memories of Murder begins with one of the policemen landing a near flawless dropkick to a suspect – knocking the breath out of the audience with surprise as well as laughter. The blend of humor and the inescapable atmosphere of horror elevate these films to near perfection. In moments of failure, of coming to terms with your grief or irredeemable position, of contemplating the significance of the greater world that is either altered or untouched by your individual actions – these films think visually and convey the most intimate human stories.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Horror to Disaster in Train to Busan

Train to Busan is stunning genre-bending film that makes the best possible Zombie movie by doing something very simple – it stops trying to be a Zombie movie. Instead, director Yeon Sang-ho delivers a thrill-ride of a disaster movie, that offers hope, redemption and heart-pounding suspense. It creates heroes that you can root for and villains that you hate. In short, Train to Busan achieves something that a lot of Hollywood movies seem to struggle to create in their tent-pole movies. This is a quick look at some of the ways in which the movie transcends its premise in a predictable, but enjoyable manner.

A Disaster movie masquerading as a Horror
A Disaster movie masquerading as a Horror

How to Make a Disaster Film?

1, Get to the point quickly

The first three minutes of Train to Busan sets up the entire premise of the film. There is no unnecessary background or details about how the disaster came about. There are no annoying plot points about the origins of the Zombies. Once we enter the train, things do not slow down to introduce the characters. The character introduction happens concurrently with the plot development and the arrival of the zombies.

2, Give every character something to fight for

Every character, from the best to the worst have clear motivations that prompt them to action. While this situation would have been easily exploited by a less artful director to present a series of cliches, Yeon Sang-ho adds subtle touches that make them unique characters. The characters are compelling because each of them are on a journey – literally and figuratively. They all desire something that they seek amidst the challenges of the disaster. The disaster does not become the main point of the film, but serves as the background against which interesting stories are presented. The incorporation of characters that do not have noble motivation deserves a special mention, as they do not serve as just challenges for the protagonists to overcome. Kim Ui-Seong’s Yong-Suk (featured below) is the worst kind of villain that selfishly manipulates characters to his own end; and yet, he adds a certain urgency by grounding the action of the protagonists against the bleak reality of human cruelty.

Yes, even this guy has a convincing character secret
Yes, even this guy has a convincing character secret

3, Establish the rules of the world clearly and simply

This is something that would be useful to many films, not just the horror/disaster genre. The rules of the disaster are kept very simple – 1, people turn into zombies when they are bitten by the zombies. 2, the zombies attack primarily on visual cues. The clarity of the world creates a simple strategy for the characters to navigate and trying to secure their own positions. The protagonists do not have any specialist knowledge that makes them equipped to fight the zombies – they just react in a manner that is more successful due to luck and circumstance. This makes the film that much more thrilling.

4, Surprise the audience’s expectations

Once the rules are explained clearly, the film starts to gently play around with the level of complexity in which the rules are deployed. At times, it holds off a few rules that come as logical extensions of the previous ideas but still manage to surprise us with their inventive simplicity. [SPOILER] When we realize that the zombies can only see in bright light, the protagonists have a chance to succeed where they had none before [SPOILER]. However, any change in the rules presents a fresh set of challenges that reinvigorate the way the characters are required to play the game.

5, Deliver on the Obvious

Of course, the biggest problem with Zombie or any horror genre movie is the obviousness of the litany of characters that are going to die. The sequence is where the film stretches the viewers’ anticipation. We have characters that are best suited to be in a Zombie film, like Gong Yoo’s character Seok Woo, who is flawed and petty at the beginning of the film. The disaster gives him a chance to evaluate his priorities and exceed his limitations when the moment comes.

6, Create Unlikely Heroes

The film succeeds in capturing the spirit of survival as the most precious of human traits by calling upon the heroic in the most ordinary people. Ma Dong-Seok’s Sang-Hwa enters the film as a brash macho stock-character whom we expect to exit the film quickly. But he rises to the occasion in a way that is unexpected over the course of the film. From a homeless man to a baseball playing youth, the heroes of the film are not experts. They surprise themselves with their heroic deeds that spring from necessity. When they succeed, a part of us succeeds as well.

Enter, Unlikely heroes. Exit, Legendary Zombie fighters.
Enter, Unlikely heroes. Exit, Legendary Zombie fighters.

I am not particularly fond of the Zombie movie genre for a simple reason – I usually get bored watching them. Despite renewed public interest in the genre due to The Walking Dead franchise, Zombie movies like the Resident Evil series and the divisive World War Z have followed the path of least resistance when it comes to plot development. My favorite Zombie films have been the ones that deliberately deconstruct the genre, like Zombieland (2009), Shaun of the Dead (2004), or 28 Days Later (2002). Each of these films subvert established conventions to build a compelling narrative. Some of the best films blend genres so convincingly that you do not even realize which genre you are watching , like the bloodlessly horrifying Contagion (2011). In the same vein, Train to Busan uses the frame of the Zombie film genre but brilliantly exceeds it with its simple, but moving plot. The record-breaking success of the film that has already grossed more than 100 times of its budget stands testament to the film’s popularity.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.