Tag Archives: Memories of Murder

Okja (2017)

[BS Note: This film is currently available for streaming on Netflix]

Returning to Korea after his first English language film, director Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) has made his second creature feature. In 2006, he put his own spin on the monster movie with The Host and here he brings a unique narrative about a special pet. A multinational food corporation with a bad history, Murando, led by their strange CEO Lucy (Tilda Swinton; Doctor Strange), has created a new breed of superpig – larger, less environmentally demanding, and tasty. In a rebranding effort, Lucy announces that 26 pigs will be sent out to be raised locally by farmers around the world with a plan to hold a “Best Superpig” contest and launch their new food products 10 years later. Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) is the teenage girl who has raised her superpig, Okja, in South Korea until it is taken away by Murando. Unwilling to say goodbye to her pet, Mija travels to America to bring Okja back home.

The success of the film relies entirely on its depiction of Okja. The hippo-like animal is rendered with a startling amount of personality and intelligence. She cuddles with Mija as she sleeps and is able to problem solve when needed. She is less like Mija’s pet than her partner in crime as she helps her fish, climb, and even risks herself to make sure Mija is safe. Most computer-generated effects suffer from unrealistic physics. They feel weightless and removed from the physical world. Okja doesn’t have this problem. She trots and leaps with a heft fitting of a creature her size. This attention to detail in her animation makes her feel believable as she interactions with the objects and people around her.

Okja’s human emotions make her immediately endearing.

There are some unexpected additions to Bong’s direction. He shoots the film with a much more frenetic style than usual. The camera bounces and shakes as it chases its subjects, even employing snap zooms as needed. This progression towards a more mainstream style of shooting action started with his previous film, Snowpiercer, but is much more prevalent here. The end result is somewhat mixed. While it does add a sense of chaos to the story, especially when Okja is involved, it can be unnecessarily distracting. It makes the otherwise well-staged action harder to follow which detracts from its overall impact.

Few filmmakers working today can juggle multiple conflicting tones like Bong can. While the overall silliness of the film prevents it from ever becoming too heavy, he still has to balance animal cruelty, extremism, corporate machinations, and animal-human relationships, each with its own tone. Fortunately, he is able to quickly change the mood as needed. Thrilling chase scenes end in toilet humor and what could be a tense hostage situation with animal rights extremists is punctuated by their incompetence. The one constant in the changing moods is Mija’s relationship with Okja. Mija’s unbreakable will to save Okja and her refusal to give up are heartwarming. Their affection serves as the emotional core of the film. While situations can often stretch believability, their friendship is a pleasant anchoring point. There could be a greater theme read into about the morality of animal farming and meat consumption, but Bong keeps his emphasis on Mija and Okja. Their credible relationship and Bong’s skilled tonal maneuverings make Okja a sweet story of the bond between a girl and best friend. Slighter than his typical work, but enjoyable nonetheless.

3/5 stars.

The Age of Shadows (2016)

In the first outing since his Arnold Schwarzenegger starring Hollywood debut The Last Stand, Kim Jee-woon returns with a film set in the 1930s when Korea was under Japanese rule. The Age of Shadows features Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder) as Lee Jeong-chool, a Korean working as a police captain for the Japanese police and tasked with capturing members of the independence movement. In order to succeed, he must infiltrate their group and gain the trust of the leaders. Along the way his allegiances are put into question, both by the rebels and by his Japanese superiors.

The film’s storyline is overly complex. It’s 139 minute runtime is bloated with several back and forths between the rebels and the Japanese police trying to delineate each group’s hierarchy. Unfortunately these scenes are edited like action movies. The rapid intercutting is clearly intended to prevent them from becoming stale but instead limits comprehension and becomes frustrating. Why spend so many minutes on these details only to undermine their impact with the rapid pacing? It’s possible that the film is intended for Korean audiences that may be more familiar with the historical background and may not need the setup explained, but even so, by not letting these scenes breathe, the bulk of the film’s runtime is wasted.

The film's opening is one of its brightest moments.
The film’s opening is one of its brightest moments.

Even with the amount of time devoted to exposition, the film doesn’t develop its characters. The rebels are shown planning their next actions but aren’t given any backstory. They are just assumed to be the protagonists without any time spent convincing us they are worth rooting for. It’s obvious that no country would want to be run by another, but the Japanese characters aren’t proven to be villains. Again, the film may be assuming that Korean audiences will automatically sympathize with the Korean characters, but from an outsider’s perspective there aren’t many reasons to pick a side. Furthermore, certain characters are claimed to be invaluable within the rebel network, but we’re never shown why. As rebel leaders are placed in peril we’re supposed to care, but how can we without understanding why they are important? Only Lee’s character has some growth. His internal struggle with working for the Japanese while being a Korean is understandable, but his path to his current situation isn’t explained. What are his motivations? Was this an easy change decision for him? Without these answers, we are left detached from the main characters and their central conflicts.

Kim is known for his frantic, bloody action scenes but there are too few present here. The film opens with a chase scene that is frenetic occasionally humorous, and features some of the gore he is known for but quickly gives way to exposition heavy beginning. Save for a well staged later set piece on a train, there are no more extended action scenes. Even the violence seems limited compared to most of his work. Neglecting these sequences in favor of labyrinthine plotting was a major mistake. Kim’s greatest strength is his ability to create bloody but playful combat. His direction remains agreeably slick, but the plodding storyline and lack of action make the film feel uninvolving and overlong.

3/5 stars.

The Wailing (2016)

In a small village outside Seoul local policeman Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won) is called to a crime scene. A previously normal man has viciously killed his family through repeated stabbing. The trend continues as more crimes occur featuring average people suddenly going on murderous rampages and losing their minds. All of these events began soon after a Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) moves into town and rumors spread in the village that he is somehow connected to the murders.

The Wailing starts out as a standard police procedural but soon hints at a supernatural bent.  The culprits of these horrific crimes have a feral quality, growling and convulsing as if possessed. Some are seen prowling naked in the night before the crimes are committed. When people begin indicting the Japanese man for these horrendous happenings, they claim he has cast some sort of spell…literally. This is a setting where demons and witchcraft are very serious concerns.

The shaman makes his attempt to remedy the situation.
The shaman makes his attempt to remedy the situation.

The film establishes several potential sources of unnatural intervention. The Japanese man, a Christian priest, and a shaman all have their own rituals and beliefs. Whether it’s holding a cross, sacrificing animals, or dramatic rites, each custom is portrayed in the same alien fashion. As the film progresses Jong-Goo must decide who to believe, but there is no clear answer. They all seem strange in their own way and the confusion only adds to the heavy dread already present.

There are strong resemblances to Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece Memories of Murder. A somewhat competent cop, a series of murders in a small town, and near constant rainfall. Director Na Hong-jin (The Yellow Sea) uses the torrential precipitation to demonstrate the hopelessness of the situation. He also contrasts the idyllic countryside filled with lush forests against the gruesome murders. Like Bong, Na skewers the desire to describe complex issues with clear, understandable principles. The townspeople try to attribute the crimes to religious beliefs as a method of deflecting reality. What is the better conclusion, that a person has been cursed or that they knowingly committed a heinous crime? As Jong-Goo navigates this spiritual struggle, director Na expertly balances the human fears with the magical possibilities.

4/5 stars.