One can hardly be blamed for going into this film with sky high expectations after it first received lavish praise at Cannes, then quickly shattered Korean box office records and finally took on the look of a sure global winner with glowing Internet traffic from film festival spectators around the world. My feet were literally tingling and my palms were a bit sweaty – it felt more like a blind date – as I sat down and awaited the mile a minute thrills that I was sure were headed my way. Though I was in row “G” I fully expected to end up somewhere in the vicinity of row “W” after being so blown away. I looked behind me and was glad there was no one in my projectile path. The fact that the director Bong Joon-ho was also responsible for two of my favorite films – the dark “Memories of Murder” and the amusingly quirky “Barking Dogs Never Bite” only added to the palpitations inside of me. And a monster film to boot! I felt like I was fourteen years old again. Without the acne thankfully.
Somewhere along the viewing timeline though I began to realize that I wasn’t getting the adrenaline kick that I was hoping for from this film – it felt like a very mixed bag of the wonderful and the wobbly as the director constantly teases us with catnip and then takes it away. Every time it looked like the film was finally going to break into full bore excitement, Bong took his foot off the accelerator and sent the audience into a diverting sidetrack that left me a little frustrated at the uneven pacing of the film. After thinking about this later I began to realize part of this frustration on my part was my Hollywood blockbuster mentality where you expect this type of film to constantly notch up the sugar level till you reach the heroic good guy victory at the conclusion, but Bong has little interest in going down this well-worn path and instead takes a very different slant on this formula.
Rather than utilizing your typical macho heroes, Bong makes a brilliant and poignant choice by making the center of his film a small unruly family who find within themselves the courage and fortitude to chase after the monster based purely on their total love for one of their members. It is as powerful a statement of the invisible and tenacious bindings between the family unit as any you are likely to see. Here is the strength that society is really built on Bong seems to be saying – the simple common man and family that are as tough and determined as iron nails when called upon. This to me was the heart of the film but there are other issues that Bong has the need to deal with and it often seemed like the monster was being used by him as a convenient metaphor to spotlight other social problems that irked him – in particular a strong anti-American bias as well as a clear distaste for Korean government bureaucrats.
Now in the days of Bush it is hard to criticize anyone for feeling anti-American* and it is certainly becoming more common in Korean films (i.e. “Typhoon”) and nobody likes pompous civil servants, but Bong’s lampooning of both is so cartoonish and broad that it felt like we had occasionally slipped into some surreal B film by accident. All the civil servants are portrayed as obsequious and slimy creatures while the Americans give it their best mad scientist bug-eyed expressions. Sure it’s a monster movie and you could easily argue that this was a nod to past films in this genre, but for me it really hurts the emotional impact of the film and brings the pacing and tension to a halt whenever it wandered into this territory (which it does often). The same issues could have been explored with a much more subtle hand that could have added to the emotional weight of the film – but Boon was more interested in scoring obvious points with the Korean audiences – which it clearly did. It will be interesting to see what the U.S. distributor Magnolia does with this film if they release it in theaters – parts of this may not play well with American audiences and I wonder if they will be tempted to snip away at it – but perhaps after the Katrina bungling the portrayal of government ineptness may feel right at home.
In case you have been in the Artic for the past few months and have not even heard of this film, here is a quick basically spoiler-less plot outline. A few years back a monotone American military doctor orders his Korean underling to pour bottles upon bottles of hazardous chemicals into the water supply because they are dusty. The underling argues that this will go into the Han River to which the American replies that the Han River is very "broad" – he repeats and emphasizes the word "broad" with an evil eye twitch – as broad as my bad acting he should have added – so in it goes. Years later this rather wonderful mutant monster crawls ashore to have some fun and fill its stomach at an economically low end beach park where the slow thinking and constantly catnapping Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) and his father run a small snack bar. This is a rather fabulous scene of total chaos and horror as the monster begins to devour various crunchy folks in its path – and Gang-du frantically tries to find his young daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung) but grabs the wrong hand while running and turns around to see her swept away curled within the monster’s tail as it dives into the water.
The government shows up as the families grieve their lost ones and begin to quarantine everyone by telling them there is a virus that they may have caught. By this time the rest of Gang-du’s family has shown up – his younger more educated but unemployed brother and his Olympic archer sister who tends to wilt under pressure (Bae Doo-na – and nothing could make me happier than having my favorite Korean actress who I first saw in Bong’s “Barking Dogs” come out of recent obscurity to be in Korean’s biggest film ever – though in truth she is not used as well as I would have liked here) and they are all collected up and sent to the hospital to be held captive. That night Gang-du receives a faint and static filled call from Hyun-seo who tells him that she is still alive and being kept in the sewer for late night hunger pangs and then the phone goes dead. Of course, no one believes him and they attribute Gang-du’s claim to a virus induced hallucination – other than his family. So with no one to turn to they break out of their confinement, get their hands on a few old rifles, a few bullets, a map of the sewers and needless to say a bow and go searching for Hyun-seo with only their resolute determination to guide them. From this point on the film whipsaws between the family search, the government searching for them and the toughest member of the family – little Hyun-seo trying to figure out a way to escape and to stay out of the jaws of the monster.
At times this is exhilarating and the tension is like a giant frozen rice ball in your chest and it comes so close to being a classic adventure film for the ages, but it is poorly undercut by Bong’s need to score some clunky political and social points – unfortunately ones that with their contemporary sensibilities will age even more badly as time goes on.
My rating for this film: 7.0